AMC warns DirecTV subscribers the network could go dark

AMC warns DirecTV subscribers the network could go dark
Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus star in "The Walking Dead" in the Season 5 premiere. DirecTV subscribers could be in jeopardy of not catching the second half of the season next year should AMC fail in contract negotiations with DirecTV. (AMC / MCT)

Taking an unusually early step, cable network AMC used commercial breaks on its most popular show, "The Walking Dead," to let viewers know that they may miss episodes next year if they have DirecTV satellite pay-TV service.

With its DirecTV contract set to expire at the end of December, AMC went on the offensive late Sunday by publicly airing what has been a growing dispute over the satellite broadcaster's carriage of AMC channels.

AMC Networks Inc. accused DirecTV of failing to engage in "meaningful negotiations," which "leaves us to doubt whether a timely renewal is possible."

------------

For the Record

Nov. 4, 2:28 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misidentified the corporate name of AMC as AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc.

------------

DirecTV, which has been trying to hold the line on increasing fees charged by content providers, downplayed the likelihood that viewers would be without their favorite zombies. Customers won't be missing "any of this year's new season of 'The Walking Dead' or any other shows," according to DirecTV.

"AMC is contractually obligated to provide all of its programming for several more months, and we intend to renew our AMC partnership at a price that's fair to our customers," DirecTV said in an effort to downplay the magnitude of AMC's action.

Neither side disclosed details about the dispute.

The latest dispute is part of growing tension between content providers such as AMC and distributors such as DirecTV and cable programmers.

Battles over so-called carriage contracts have been heating up as media companies look for ways to boost their bottom line and distributors seek to halt rising prices that invoke the fury of customers.

Last month, a contentious dispute over a deadline extension led Dish Network Corp. to remove Turner Broadcast networks Cartoon Network, CNN and Turner Classic Movies from its lineup.

In September, a smaller provider, Suddenlink Communications, took the unusual step of terminating its relationship with Viacom Inc., saying the Viacom channels, including Nickelodeon and MTV, were not worth the price Viacom was demanding.

And during the summer, DirecTV refused to accept the high fees that Time Warner Cable Inc. wanted to charge for the Los Angeles Dodgers' new channel. The stalemate resulted in a nearly season-long blackout for non-Time Warner Cable customers.

AMC used its most popular show to warn DirecTV viewers, via on-air spots and graphics, that its carriage agreement with the satellite company is in jeopardy of not being renewed and that they could miss the second half of the fifth season, starting in February. It urged viewers to call a hotline and to visit an AMC website devoted to the dispute.

The first half of the "The Walking Dead's" fifth season opened last month to 17.3 million viewers, making it one of the most popular shows on television and what AMC hopes will be key ammunition in contract negotiations.

Strong TV networks have had the upper hand in contract-renewal talks by using popular shows to generate buzz and galvanize viewers to put pressure on cable and satellite operators.

Also included in negotiations are carriage of AMC's other cable channels — IFC, Sundance Channel and WEtv — which could go dark when the current deal expires.

Besides accusing DirecTV of failing to engage in meaningful negotiations, AMC also contended that the El Segundo company was in "violation of its current agreement" by dropping the network in Latin America.

"We've had a long, successful partnership with DirecTV and have great respect for their management team and the business they've built," AMC said. "Our goal is to continue our partnership, by renewing our agreement and extending our business relationship well into the future."

New York-based AMC said it hoped to reach an agreement quickly with the satellite service, which boasts a hefty 20.2 million subscribers. AT&T Inc.'s pending $48.5-billion deal to buy DirecTV is awaiting regulatory approval.

Twitter: @villarrealy