Mid-Columbians work around Fox, DirecTV blackout

Glenna Hawley is one local DirecTV customer who still will be able to watch the Super Bowl when it airs Feb. 6.

But she will have to switch between two remotes and turn on a converter box she bought when all TV signals started being sent as digital rather than analog.

"It's real simple," the woman said from her Kennewick home Friday morning, as she plugged in the converter box that sits near her TV.

Next she pulled out the rabbit ears of an antenna, also near her TV. Then she used the converter box's remote to turn it on. Finally, she pressed the TV button on her TV remote.

Presto, the Fox channel that had been dark through DirecTV came to life.

Hawley is one of many frustrated DirecTV customers who are scrambling to find ways to pick up the local Fox channel, KFFX 11, in the wake of a dispute between DirecTV and Spokane-based Northwest Broadcasting, which owns the local Fox affiliate.

An agreement between the two entities expired Dec. 31. They have not been able to reach an agreement on a new contract.

As a result, Northwest Broadcasting stopped allowing DirecTV to broadcast the KFFX signal, leaving local customers staring at a note to that effect when they turned to Fox.

But some viewers, such as Hawley, have found ways to pick up the local station in other ways.

DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer said DirecTV customers with an antenna and a TV that receives digital signals could be a simpler solution.

He said they could try taking the cable from their antenna and plugging it into the antenna input on their TV, if their TV has one.

DirecTV also recently took another action to help about a third of its customers in the Yakima and Tri-Cities area. It automatically connected them to a Fox affiliate out of Los Angeles.

Shawn Kincaid of Wapato was one of those customers. A couple of weeks ago, after he couldn't watch a Seahawks game on Fox, he called DirecTV to complain.

He was told to turn to Channel 399. He did, and found DirecTV already had connected him to the Los Angeles-based station.

Others viewers that DirecTV had automatically connected received a recorded phone message telling them they had the new option.

But not everyone in the Yakima and the Tri-City areas is eligible to receive the long-distance signal, Mercer said.

The Federal Communications Commission has set up a complicated system that decides who is eligible based on a model that predicts whether a customer can receive the local Fox signal without the aid of a satellite or cable provider.

If the model predicts a customer could receive the local signal, then that customer isn't eligible to receive the long-distance signal.

According to Mercer, customers could request a waiver from those rules and ask to receive the Los Angeles signal. But, he said, it would be up to Northwest Broadcasting to grant that waiver.

"And if you think about it, why would they?" Mercer added. "They're doing everything they can to keep viewers in the dark so they can keep leverage" as they negotiate a contract with DirecTV.

Jon Rand, vice president and chief operating officer for Northwest Broadcasting, strongly denied that accusation.

"Waivers are a 'red herring' from DirecTV to take the pressure off of their call centers and their executives," Rand wrote in an e-mail.

As long as the FCC model deems customers can receive the local Fox station without a satellite or cable provider, they are not eligible for a waiver, he wrote.

"Mr. Mercer has misrepresented the truth to you," Rand continued.

Customers who want more information about applying for a waiver may visit the website at http://bit.ly/gY5h0D.

As customers scramble to find ways to receive the local Fox station, Northwest Broadcasting and DirecTV continue to blame each other for the ongoing struggle over reaching an agreement.

The agreement sets out what DirecTV will pay Northwest Broadcasting to offer the local Fox affiliate to DirecTV customers.

Rand has said Northwest Broadcasting is only asking DirecTV for a rate comparable with what it pays to air cable channels such as Discovery, MTV and TBS. He also said his company is asking for a rate comparable with what DirecTV pays other Fox affiliates around the country.

DirecTV representatives have said the satellite provider is offering Northwest Broadcasting a rate that is well above market rate.

DirecTV has asked Northwest Broadcasting to agree to arbitration and to return KFFX to DirecTV viewers in the meantime.

But Northwest Broadcasting has said it hasn't heard of a situation where that has been effective.

"That's a ridiculous statement," Mercer wrote in an e-mail. "DirecTV is willing to (agree to arbitration) and stand by any decision made so we can get these channels back to our customers."

In an e-mail, Rand wrote, "We continue to be hopeful that, for the benefit of their customers, DirecTV will make Northwest Broadcasting a counteroffer to our proposal of a week ago."

"For them to simply say 'no,' as they did, is not a counterproposal," he wrote.