WRCB, Dish dicker over pennies amid blackout

WRCB-TV cut its requested increase in the carrying fee for the Dish Network by more than half this week, but the local NBC affiliate still hasn't reached an agreement with the satellite provider as Dish subscribers enter their third week of a Channel 3 blackout.

WRCB negotiators originally asked Dish for more than four times the current rate to renew its contract for the satellite provider to carry NBC in Chattanooga. But the station since has dropped the requested increase to a 150 percent fee hike, according to Dish spokesman Aaron Johnson.

"They're still asking for what I would say is an excessive rate increase," he said. "We've done this with dozens of other stations over the last few years, so we know what a fair rate is and we've been able to do this with dozens of other stations without going into a blackout."

Both Johnson and WRCB general manager Tom Tolar said there's no reason for the blackout. Each side said it offered either to extend the previous agreement or operate under a temporary agreement, but the other side rejected the offer.

According to surveys by Scarborough Research, 107,451 people, or 15 percent of all TV viewers in the Chattanooga viewing area, are connected to the Dish Network.

Since WRCB was removed from the Dish network, the station has posted a letter to Dish on their website, offering to continue the terms of their previous contract until a new agreement can be reached.

Tolar said talking about the company's rate increase request in percentages gives an unfair picture. Now, the station is getting a fraction of a penny per subscriber each day, and they want to bump that fee to around 2 cents per viewer a day.

The two sides are maintaining open lines of communication, but Tolar said Dish hasn't moved in any real way from its original offer. The blackout, he said, could be a negotiating technique.

"This is the most frustrated that I have been, and I know that our viewers are frustrated and I don't like putting them in that position," Tolar said.

Dish negotiates contracts to carry local network affiliates several hundred times a year across the country, Johnson said. Tolar said he suspects the blackout could be a forward-thinking move for Dish, which will negotiate several contracts at the end of the year.

"My worst-case scenario is perhaps we're being used as an example," he said. "I hope we're not being used because we're a small broadcast system."

The move has the potential to hurt WRCB-TV. Ratings information is collected in November, and that data is used to sell advertising.

But Tolar said NBC's ratings have been on the rise, and he expects the rise will offset any ratings decease.

Ringgold resident and NBC's Today Show fan Brandi Stagg said she's unhappy about the blackout. It's messed up her morning routine, but she spent about $30 on equipment to get the channel over the air.

"It's not the majority of our bill or anything, but still," she said, "it's frustrating."