BANGOR, Maine — Subscribers to DISH who woke up Wednesday and tried to watch WABI-TV’s morning news broadcast found blank screens thanks to an ongoing contract dispute that has blacked out the station on the direct-broadcast satellite service provider.
In a strongly worded news release issued early Wednesday morning after the station went dark, DISH network stated that “WABI-TV has blocked DISH customers’ access to WABI-TV 5 (CBS) and WABI DT2 (CW).”
In the brief release, DISH places the blame squarely on the shoulders of WABI, but also leaves out significant details of how and why negotiations reached this standstill.
“Broadcasters like WABI use their in-market monopoly power to put profits ahead of the public interests they are supposed to serve,” said R. Stanton Dodge, DISH’s executive vice president and general counsel, in the release.
“WABI blacked out its channels to use viewers as bargaining chips as it makes unreasonable demands on DISH and its customers,” Steve Swain, DISH senior vice president of programming said in the release. “We offered to keep the channels on while we try to reach a deal, but WABI refuses to put viewers first.”
“Absurd,” said Mike Young, vice president and general manager at Community Broadcasting Service, which operates WABI, when that statement was read to him Wednesday morning.
WABI has painted a very different picture of what lead up to this blackout. Young has posted multiple negotiation progress updates on WABI’s website for viewers. A confidentiality agreement bars both parties from sharing specific details, but WABI said there are issues holding up negotiations that run far deeper than a disagreement over what DISH calls “unreasonable” monetary compensation sought by WABI.
“Going from a penny to a nickel is a 400 percent increase. Similarly, going from a dime to 60 cents is ‘six times the rate!’” Young said. “We cannot say what the actual current rate is [due to the confidentiality restrictions]. However, simply put — percentages and multiples can be misleading.”
The current DISH reimbursement rate was negotiated five years ago, Young said.
Still, Young said he’s confident the monetary issues could be worked out, if not for other significant contract amendments that have prevented negotiations from reaching that point.
Young was critical of DISH Network’s responsiveness during these contractual negotiations. With their contract set to expire on June 24, WABI reached out to DISH on April 11 in hopes of initiating negotiations. With no response, WABI followed up again on April 23. On May 5, the station made initial contact with a DISH representative, who said a draft contract amendment would be ready by May 9, but nothing arrived. WABI finally received a draft on May 21, with several changes and stipulations that Young called “unprecedented” in any of WABI’s other contracts.
Young declined to disclose some of those details, but said the chief change that raised the station’s hackles would have eliminated service for “thousands” of WABI viewers who subscribe to DISH. The amended DISH contract proposed eliminating WABI service in three of nine counties WABI serves in the state, Young said, but he declined to say which counties those were. That is a major stumbling block that, among other terms, has prevented talks from progressing much further, he added.
“We do not want anyone who currently has access to our local news and other programming to permanently lose it as a result of DISH’s insistence on this change,” Young said.
WABI and DISH did come to terms on a series of temporary contract extensions that provided service until July 15. WABI claims that it tried to seek another agreement through July 31, while DISH claims it offered to keep the channels on during negotiations, but that WABI refused.
This is not the first time DISH has reached an impasse with local and national providers.
In the summer of 2013, 53 stations in 36 markets were blacked out after a dispute between DISH and Raycom over retransmission fees. There were others that year. This year, 29 Hearst stations in 25 markets went dark after their own series of stalled negotiations. There have been many more disputes with smaller networks in smaller markets. In each case, DISH pointed the finger at the other group.
WABI and DirectTV went through a blackout in 2012. That contract dispute was resolved after three weeks without service.
Young said no immediate talks are scheduled with DISH, but both parties say they will continue to work to resolve their disputes and restore service to WABI viewers using DISH. He said WABI has been fielding “hundreds” of calls and emails from angry and disappointed viewers.
“You have every right to be upset about this matter,” Young said, “and we want you to know that we want to reach a fair and equitable agreement with DISH so that we may return to their service.”
Still, that doesn’t mean WABI should be expected to capitulate to DISH’s every demand to make that happen, Young argued.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter @nmccrea213