Media Scene

Raycom says AT&T trying to make it ‘bad guy’ in WBTV Tar Heel blackout

AT&T U-verse customers who tune to WBTV (Channel 3) get this message instructing them about options to see NCAA games.
AT&T U-verse customers who tune to WBTV (Channel 3) get this message instructing them about options to see NCAA games.

With minutes ticking down until the UNC tip-off in the NCAA Men’s Tournament and no breakthrough in contract negotiations, Raycom Media on Thursday rejected a call by AT&T U-verse that the blackout on CBS affiliate WBTV (Channel 3) be lifted in Charlotte.

“We are not surprised that you wish to attempt to make WBTV and Raycom Media the ‘bad guys’ who you would like to portray as denying your paying customers for such high-demand, and expensive, programming,” Jeff Rosser, senior vice president of television for Raycom Group, said in a letter to U-verse.

For eight days, WBTV has been dark on AT&T U-verse in the Charlotte area, and each side in the contract dispute has blamed the other for the failure to show the channel. Raycom said Thursday that it had agreed to three extensions to keep its stations on U-Verse systems across the nation, the last expiring March 15.

Raycom is negotiating on behalf of all its stations in 23 cities embroiled in the contract dispute, not just WBTV in Charlotte, it said.

“You are deceptively seeking public sympathy and support as you attempt to negotiate through the press,” Raycom said, referring to a statement given to the Observer by AT&T on Wednesday, “by singling out only one of the many Raycom TV stations whose viewers are suffering equally from this unfortunate impasse. …

“Our mutually expired agreement was between all of Raycom Media and all of AT&T U-verse, and any new agreement will be the same.”

In response, AT&T repeated that it was up to Raycom to determine whether WBTV appears on U-verse during the negotiations.

“We have asked Raycom numerous times to leave WBTV up, and once they took that station away, to put it back,” said Josh Gelinas, U-verse’s communications director in Charlotte.

“We have offered to compensate Raycom – even when out of contract – for events like Friday’s Tar Heels game. Our challenge to Raycom stands – put WBTV back on and we will compensate you while we work privately to settle this issue,” he said.

Friday night’s 7:09 p.m. game between the No. 1-seed UNC Tar Heels, the last surviving ACC team, and the No. 4-seed Butler Bulldogs, is the first time UNC has been telecast on CBS in the tournament. Other games have been carried on Turner channels unaffected by the blackout.

In a letter to WBTV general manager Scott Dempsey on Wednesday, Linda Burakoff, AT&T’s vice president of programming, said that the station should persuade its parent company to allow the cable system to carry the UNC game.

“We believe there is no public interest served by WBTV and Alabama-based Raycom continuing this deliberate blackout – inconveniencing our Charlotte subscribers and disrupting the hard-working proprietors of local restaurants and North Carolina sports bars that televise March Madness,” Burakoff said in the letter.

“We formally request that WBTV and its parent company Raycom immediately return WBTV to all U-verse customers in the Charlotte region for, at a minimum, the duration of Friday night’s game,” Burakoff said.

In all, stations in 23 cities operated by Raycom, based in Montgomery, Ala., are affected by the blackout. WBTV continues to be carried on the region’s dominant cable system – Spectrum, formerly Time Warner Cable – and is available through other cable systems and satellite providers.

At the heart of the dispute is how much AT&T is willing to pay Raycom to carry its stations. Station groups, arguing that their network content and local news is of prime importance to the cable audience and its programming costs and licensing fees are ever rising, have been pressuring carriers to pay more.

But cable systems and satellite services, trying to keep a lid on price increases to customers, have been bargaining for lower costs.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs