Charter customers could lose WJHL Wednesday night

Nathan Baker • Jan 8, 2014 at 9:36 AM

Local Charter Communications customers watching as DISH network subscribers endure their second consecutive blackout of local broadcast stations could soon be lamenting the loss of one of their own channels.

Tri-Cities CBS affiliate WJHL-TV, owned by Richmond, Va., headquartered Media General Inc., will go dark on Charter’s channel lineup at midnight Wednesday unless the companies negotiate a retransmission agreement before the deadline.

If Charter pulls the signal, which the company is required to do by law if no agreement is in place, it would be WJHL’s second blackout on subscriber services in four months.

The first began on Oct. 1, when negotiations between Media General and DISH ground to a standstill, and lasted for six weeks.

During the blackout and the contentious negotiations, Media General advised local DISH customers to switch to other services, including cable providers — advice that, if followed, could have put viewers in the path of another lost signal.

“We certainly understand that they’re frustrated, we’re frustrated as well,” Media General Communications Manager Liz Cleal said during a phone interview Monday. “We’re working as hard as we can to get to an agreement, so their signal can continue uninterrupted.”

For current DISH customers, this is the fifth week of a blackout of two main local signals, WCYB, an NBC affiliate owned by Bonten Media Group, and Fox Broadcasting Co. affiliate WEMT, aired by Bonten through an agreement with owner Esteem Broadcasting. The CW, a companion station to WCYB, has also been removed from DISH.

At the core of the blackouts, locally and nationwide, are disputes over the fees paid to the affiliate owners by the subscriber television services for the rights to carry their signals, called retransmission rights.

Broadcast station owners are asking for higher prices for their local content, hoping to come closer to the fees paid to cable channels, and paid subscription services are resisting.

In an interview last month, Bonten Media CEO Randy Bongarten said the recent upheaval in the subscriber television market has been driven mainly by rising costs demanded by the major networks.

The broadcast networks are competing with cable networks for the rights to air sporting events and are asking for more money from the affiliates, who are in turn attempting to pass the costs on to the subscriber services as part of the retransmission rights, Bongarten said.

When reached Monday, Bongarten said an agreement had not yet been reached with DISH.

The federal Cable Act of 1992 defined retransmission consent, but cable companies didn’t pay the fees and local stations didn’t begin enforcing the statute until the mid-2000s.

The fees nationwide now range from a few cents per month per service subscriber to almost $1 in larger markets.

Industry experts say the prospect of new revenue has driven consolidation among media companies seeking more negotiating power by having more stations in more markets.

In early November, Media General completed a merger with Young Broadcasting, creating a company that owns 31 broadcast stations and reaches 16.5 million, or 14 percent, of U.S. television households.

The retransmission consent negotiations with Charter could affect 15 stations, most of which are in the southern U.S.

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