Area DirecTV subscribers can't get FOX

KENNEWICK — When the new season of American Idol starts Jan. 19, Tri-City fans who are DirecTV customers might have to find another way to watch the popular talent show from FOX Broadcasting.

The local affiliate -- KFFX Fox 11 -- has been dark for DirecTV customers since the New Year's ball dropped at midnight Saturday because of a contract dispute between the satellite TV provider and station owner Northwest Broadcasting.

Jon Rand, Northwest Broadcasting's chief operating officer, said via telephone from Spokane that his Michigan-based company first gave notice to DirecTV about 15 months ago that a new deal would have to be negotiated before their contract expired Dec. 31.

Rand said the existing agreement is 10 years old, and Northwest Broadcasting was asking DirecTV to bring its rates in line with current market conditions.

"That 10-year-old contract represented the market conditions when it was negotiated, but no longer represents the reality in the marketplace and is not the basis for a new agreement," Northwest President and CEO Brian Brady said in a statement.

But DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer countered in an e-mail to the Herald that Northwest Broadcasting's demands would drive up costs more than customers would accept.

"Regardless of what they have received from us before, what they are asking for right now is astronomically higher than what we currently pay any other station group for local channels, regardless of their size," Mercer said. "Profits or not, accepting a 600 percent increase would cause a customer's bill to become ridiculously high, and we have to take a stand. Thus far, we have not received a counter-offer from them."

Rand said an offer was submitted Tuesday, but there was no word whether the two companies were closer to a deal.

He also accused DirecTV of using "sensationalized numbers" to try to sway the public.

"There was a lot of information in their press release that was not factual," Rand said.

He said DirecTV was "picking on" Northwest Broadcasting because it was an easier target than larger companies. "This is truly a David and Goliath standoff," he said.

Mercer blamed the small company -- which owns a handful of stations -- for yanking FOX programming from DirecTV customers in the Tri-Cities, Spokane, Yakima, Binghamton, N.Y., Medford, Ore., and Laredo, Texas.

"If Northwest really cares about their viewers, they should restore the channels so we can keep talks at the negotiating table where they belong," Mercer said. "It's the only right thing to do and only Northwest can make that happen. In the meantime, Northwest continues to show a callous disregard for its viewers by not lifting the blackout in its attempt to gain leverage in the negotiations."

The KFFX broadcast signal from Kennewick can be received on channel 11-1 in the Tri-Cities. To get the signal, viewers either need a digital TV and antenna, or an analog TV and digital converter box.