WRAL and WRAZ have been off AT&T U-Verse since Sept. 13 because of a contract dispute. Viewers are angry that they can’t see WRAL local news, NFL football and popular programs such as “This is Us” that NBC and Fox offer. N&O file photos
WRAL and WRAZ have been off AT&T U-Verse since Sept. 13 because of a contract dispute. Viewers are angry that they can’t see WRAL local news, NFL football and popular programs such as “This is Us” that NBC and Fox offer. N&O file photos

TV News & Reviews

As WRAL and AT&T keep fighting, viewers say they’re the big losers

By Brooke Cain

bcain@newsobserver.com

September 20, 2017 02:08 PM

UPDATED September 21, 2017 03:53 PM

It has been almost a week since a contract dispute led Capitol Broadcasting Co. to pull its WRAL and WRAZ signals from AT&T U-verse.

That means one weekend – so far – of missed college and NFL football games for U-verse customers who can’t access their local NBC and Fox affiliates.

AT&T spokespeople say the dispute is because CBC wants a “significant increase” in the retransmission fees paid by AT&T. A WRAL website FAQ says their signals are available for free over the air, so viewers should buy an antenna and tell AT&T to discount their cable bills.

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But consumers say enough is enough.

Brian Lewis of Cary is, in a word, frustrated. Lewis has been a WRAL viewer nearly his whole life, he says. “I can remember Charlie Gaddy and Bob DeBardelaben,” he said. “I remember Greg Fishel’s first day.”

But now, Lewis – a big watcher of news and sports on TV – says he has switched over to WTVD, the local ABC affiliate. He says the idea of paying for a cable TV package that includes local channels and then having to go out and purchase an antenna – the alternative suggested by WRAL – doesn’t make sense to him.

“It’s absurd to me that WRAL really thinks people are going to flock to Wal-Mart to buy rabbit ears,” he said. “I think WRAL is really wrong about what their expectations are for consumers. Most people are loyal, but not that loyal. We have invested a lot in our televisions – in Wi-Fi and surround-sound and all that technology – and then this idea that WRAL wants us to go out and buy rabbit ears?”

Laura Linebarger of Cary went the antenna route over the weekend and got mixed results.

Lineberger says she bought an HD antenna at Target but had so many trees around her apartment that after scanning multiple times, she still only picked up The CW. She returned it and bought a more expensive antenna and the channels eventually came through. But it’s not a good fix, she says.

“The signal isn’t perfect,” she said. “It’s pixelated, and it takes a lot of adjustment.”

Negotiations are ongoing

WRAL vice president and general manager Steve Hammel said Tuesday evening that Capitol is still working on reaching an agreement with AT&T.

“We really regret that it’s our viewers and AT&T customers that are in the middle and that’s never the intention,” he said. “We much preferred this to be a quiet negotiation that we have most of the time, with our track record of 60 years of being locally owned with good relationships with the people we work with.”

But Hammel could give no timetable for when viewers can expect to see WRAL and WRAZ back on AT&T.

“The reality is AT&T’s customers have an agreement with AT&T. We have a commitment to our viewers to provide them with news and information,” Hammel said. “And we’re still providing that information, and people can still get that information over the air. And I realize if one is an AT&T customer, that’s not the way they have chosen to have an agreement with AT&T.

“I regret that this is an inconvenience for our viewers and their customers,” said Hammel. “They have every right to be upset.”

Jeff Cook of Raleigh feels especially stung by the events because he just switched over to AT&T from Spectrum a week and a half ago and had no idea there was a contract dispute. He says if he had known, he wouldn’t have signed the AT&T contract.

Cook says he called AT&T immediately and told them “this is ridiculous” and asked for a discount.

“I told them that I thought it was unacceptable that they didn’t tell me that up front and that they were not providing me services that they told me they would provide – and that I wanted a discount on my bill for every day that station was not working and that if it wasn’t resolved soon, I’d just discontinue their service and go back to my previous provider,” Cook said.

“I just don’t understand how a company the size of AT&T can’t manage something as simple as that,” he said. “It sounds like they’ve been working on it for quite some time with WRAL.”

What’s fair?

The FCC mandates that cable companies (or multi-system operators) like AT&T must pay stations like WRAL retransmission fees for the rights to broadcast their content. They pay these fees to larger media companies as well. The cable companies then pass those costs to the consumer.

“Obviously it’s in the best interest of AT&T to try to drive those costs down so that they’re not charging consumers as much, but that affects the ability of Capitol Broadcasting to provide a good product,” said Chuck Tryon, a media studies professor at Fayetteville State University. “If they can’t make a profit off the retrans fees, their business model loses out as well. It’s basically a dispute over how much AT&T is willing to pay WRAL for the ability to carry their stations. And that can get really contested.”

During a similar dispute with DirecTV in 2012, Capitol Broadcasting publicized the negotiations for weeks leading up to the deadline and even gave away free antennas to viewers who subscribed to DirecTV. In that case, Capitol and DirecTV reached a last-minute deal that kept them on the air. But a dispute with DirecTV in 2016 took WRAL and WRAZ off the air for two days.

“It feels like it’s becoming more common,” said Tryon. “I think Capitol, because it’s locally owned and smaller, may have less negotiating power than a bigger company like Sinclair that has hundreds of stations and can pull a lot of stations from these companies.”

According to a legal notice published in newspapers this week, AT&T is undergoing similar negotiations with stations across the nation, including WBTV in Charlotte and WECT in Wilmington.

Tryon notes that these types of disputes could prompt some consumers to give up cable altogether.

“I think part of the pressure as well is more and more people are cutting the cord on TV subscriptions in general and going to things like Sling and over-the-air,” he said. “This could prove to be an interesting test to see how much power both sides have in terms of being able to negotiate what both sides perceive as fair retransmission fees.”

Football and Fall TV

In the meantime, local viewers are getting squeezed.

Cook says his golf buddies were “screaming over no football this weekend” and that he was even reduced to listening to golf on his phone. “That was not on my bucket list, but I can mark it off now,” he said. “But that really wasn’t very enjoyable.

“My next step is to go buy an antenna and send the receipt to AT&T with my bill.”

Even though Cook’s main priority is sports, he does say the NBC drama “This Is Us,” scheduled to make its Season 2 premiere next week, is also important. “There may be people camped in WRAL’s parking lot with TVs outside to watch it,” he said.

Lineberger says she isn’t interested in leaving AT&T over the outage. And she doesn’t want to cut the cord because she uses her DVR and On Demand services, and just prefers the convenience of cable.

“I would be a whole lot more upset if this was ABC or CBS,” she says. “I’m actually glad WRAL went to NBC because I don’t watch that many NBC shows.”

The few NBC shows she does watch – like Jimmy Fallon and “This Is Us” – Lineberger says she will watch the next day online. She does want to watch football live, though – she’s a UNC fan and a Carolina Panthers fan.

“If this is still going on when the Panthers are on Fox, hopefully my antenna will work.”

Brooke Cain: 919-829-4579, @brookecain