Comcast and WRCB shed gloves in Dish Network spat

Comcast and WRCB shed gloves in Dish Network spat

December 10th, 2011 by Carey O'Neil in Business Around the Region

After a nearly two-month-long NBC blackout, Comcast is trying to entice Dish Network customers away from the service that has so far failed to come to a pricing agreement with the local station.

Comcast was running radio ads Friday highlighting the company's deals for those who switch to their cable system, which unlike Dish has a retransmission agreement with local NBC affiliate WRCB Channel 3.

"We did do something based on what looks like is going to be a longer-lasting situation to make sure customers knew they had some options," said Jim Weigert, local Comcast general manager. "People are more frustrated with why they can't get their local news, why they can't get all the local content."

Comcast doesn't keep specific numbers, but Weigert said his company is seeing many disgruntled Dish customers make the switch.

Two weeks ago, WRCB took off the gloves in its fight with Dish, running radio ads calling for customers to switch providers to get NBC content.

"Dish has taken away WRCB and your favorite news, weather and sports and NBC network shows," a deep, booming voice has told Chattanooga radio listeners for the past two weeks. "But Dish doesn't care. They're continuing to charge you the same monthly fee. That's just not right."

The ads began just as WRCB-TV general manager Tom Tolar said negotiations between the two companies over the rate the satellite provider should pay Channel 3 for its content were looking positive.

"The pace of the conversation has picked up on Dish's part beginning late last week," he said Thursday. "The price that we are asking of Dish and the offer that Dish is making to us, the difference between those two has narrowed."

Dish spokesman Aaron Johnson, who in the past characterized WRCB's requests as unreasonable, wouldn't comment on specifics of the deal. The two organizations have open lines of communication, he said, and Dish is involved in these kinds of talks regularly across the country without blacking out stations.

Johnson also declined to comment on WRCB's radio campaign.

Tolar said the campaign is a rebuttal to the prerecorded announcement Dish has run in lieu of NBC programming since the blackout.

"It's a pretty negative message about us," he said. "This is an opportunity for us to be proactive in reaching out to the Dish customers."

Art Brosky, a spokesman for consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said customers are the losers in these disputes

"Everybody wants leverage over the negotiations, and you or I or whoever else watches TV will be the leverage," he said. "It often comes down to a game of chicken."

According to surveys by Scarborough Research, 107,451 Chattanoogans, or 15 percent of local viewers, are connected to Dish.

Brosky said there's no typical length for station blackouts, but pressure to come to an agreement mounts as big TV events approach. In the coming months, NBC is carrying the Superbowl and the Olympics.

Having those events blacked out would no doubt be a blow to the network's ratings and Dish's customer relations.

"It's really unfortunate," Brosky said. "I think they all realize what the endgame is. They all lose."

WDEF Channel 12 is also in negotiations with Dish, but general manager Phil Cox didn't respond to several phone calls. WTVC Channel 9 general manager Mike Costa declined to comment on the status of his station's relationship with Dish.