DISH drama: First WJHL, now WCYB blackout looms

Nathan Baker • Dec 6, 2013 at 8:55 AM

Another day, another local channel threatening a blackout on DISH network if contract negotiations aren’t soon resolved.

Less than a month after the conclusion of a six-week disruption of 18 broadcast television signals across the Southeast owned by Media General, including Johnson City’s WJHL, two other stations could go dark on the satellite television provider if a retransmission deal isn’t reached by 11:59 p.m. Saturday.

Bonten Media Group, which owns Tri-Cities NBC affiliate WCYB, and airs the Fox Broadcasting Company affiliate WEMT through an agreement with owner Esteem Broadcasting, announced the potential for service interruption for DISH customers if a new contract isn’t signed this weekend.

Bonten CEO Randy Bongarten said the actual contract deadline was Nov. 30, but a one-week extension agreed upon by both companies gave them until Saturday to reach an agreeable arrangement to give DISH permission to carry the local channels.

“We need higher levels of compensation, because the amounts we’re paying to the networks are skyrocketing,” Bongarten said Wednesday during a telephone interview. “The system has changed substantially, and has been changing over the past couple of years.”

Much of the rising cost can be attributed to the heavy competition for sports programming broadcast rights, Bongarten said, as 24-hour sports cable networks and major broadcast television networks offer heavy prices for exclusive right to air national sporting leagues and events.

“(The major networks) have paid so much for sports that they can’t possibly afford to pay for them with just advertising alone,” he said. “So the networks are insisting on a higher payment from us, and we’re having to pass that along in our retransmission fees.”

But, like in its dispute with Media General, DISH is calling Bonten’s fee increase request exorbitant.

“DISH remains at the negotiating table with a market-based offer to Bonten Media Group, while they continue to demand a 300 percent rate increase,” an emailed statement from a spokesperson said. “DISH is ready to sign a fair deal to avoid any disruptions to our customers.”

As the Media General blackout dragged on, DISH filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission claiming the broadcast company was stalling the process and asking the agency to force Media General into negotiations.

A month after the filing, the stations were back on the air, but the two companies declined to release details on the signed retransmission consent contract.

Bongarten said he hopes negotiations remain cordial between the two companies, and said the company is still working for an agreement before Saturday.

“So far, it hasn’t been at all acrimonious, and I certainly hope we won’t do that in our case,” he said. “We’re trying to keep the temperature down a bit. I don’t think we’re trying to go after each other, but we do have business interests we’re trying to protect.”

If the companies don’t reach an agreement before the deadline, a companion station to WCYB, the CW, could also be pulled from DISH’s transmission.

Bonten owns or provides services to seven other broadcast stations in North Carolina, Texas, Montana and California that would go dark on DISH network if an agreement is not reached in time.

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