Dish to stop superstation subscriptions

Old WSBK TV logo

WBSK logo from the 1970s, courtesy of Logopedia

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Dish Network vs. DirecTV or cable is that Dish sells a la carte subscriptions to the five legally protected superstations. As rare examples of distant over-the-air TV, stations WBSK, WWOR, WPIX, KWGN, and KTLA are available through Dish individually or in a package.

That’s all going to end September 19, less than two weeks from now, when Dish will no longer offer the superstations, although existing superstation subscribers will be grandfathered indefinitely according to an email from Dish to its retailers. That news was reported by the SatelliteGuys site, which is usually right about such things.

Those five superstations don’t include the two you might guess, WGN and WTBS, not any more. Those five are the suvivors of the brief superstation wave that hit cable TV in the 1970s and 80s, with their grandfathered status preserved by a specific clause in the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA). (WGN and WTBS evolved to add non-OTA national versions of themselves, partly to skirt rules about cable systems importing distant OTA signals. Long story.)

Now Congress is debating STELA’s renewal, and some legislators want to add on an overhaul to all retransmission consent rules. There are contentious committee hearings going on now, and I’ll bet that no one at those hearings even mentions superstations. My guess is that Dish sees that Congress will overhaul STELA one day soon and that when it does, the superstation exemption will be gone.

When I chose Dish 12 years ago, the superstations were a large factor, but now it would be easy to say that these grapes have already soured. All five superstations once provided plenty of major-league baseball coverage, but this year they combined for only about 50 games, split between WWOR and WPIX. With the rise of second-tier networks (WB and UPN, then CW and My TV), these “independent” stations had less and less unique programming. And with HD as the new basic standard for most TV viewers, Dish still delivers only the SD version. A few years ago, I noticed how little I was watching them, so I dropped them.

If you want one last chance to get distant OTA channels delivered via pay-TV satellite, this might be it. I don’t know if they’re really worth $7/month, but I figured I’d subscribe to them one more time before it’s too late.

Update: It’s September 19, and sure enough, Dish no longer offers the Superstations on its a la carte programming page. Hope you subscribed if you really wanted them.