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WSFX's Parent Company Continues Negotiations With DirecTV, U-verse

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Jan 5, 2018
Monthslong transmission negotiations between the parent company of a local TV affiliate and AT&T Entertainment Group are ongoing as the two companies still battle over the terms of an agreement.

An exchange of letters by company officials with AT&T Entertainment Group and Charlotte-based American Spirit Media LLC, a parent company to local TV station WSFX Fox Wilmington, have gone on this week without a resolution.

The WSFX lineup was dropped from DirecTV, a subsidiary of AT&T, and AT&T U-verse, on Sept. 21. WSFX network, which included the station’s NLF sports games featuring the Carolina Panthers, was dropped weeks after the NFL season began. 

The two companies have different public opinions on who was responsible for that decision and have been battling out fees for the local TV service since September.

"[The] local broadcast stations continue to blackout local communities in record numbers to try to raise their fees (for free content). In the past year, broadcasters set a new record of more than 210 station blackouts in over 120 cities causing more than 21 million American homes at least some temporary disruption," AT&T spokesman Josh Gelinas said in an email Friday.

American Spirit Media claims that it was DirecTV and U-verse that dropped its stations.

Officials with AT&T said it has been unable to come to terms to extend its transmission agreement with WSFX Fox Wilmington, according to a Jan. 4 letter to Fox Wilmington General Manager Charlotte Cohen.

“WSFX alone has the power to determine whether the station remains in the DirecTV or U-verse lineups since that requires permission from you and your Charlotte-based owner, American Spirit Media,” Linda Burakoff, vice president of content and programming for AT&T Entertainment Group, said in the letter.

Citing the Carolina Panthers' advance to the opening wild-card round of the NFL playoffs to take on the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the national company offered a formal request in the letter that American Spirit Media and the local station return to all DirecTV and U-verse customers “at a minimum for the duration of this Sunday’s game, enabling residents to renew their support for the Panthers …” she said in the letter.

“In return, we agree to compensate American Spirit and WSFX for not only the duration of this week’s game for Sunday’s entire 24-hour schedule, and also apply any new retransmission consent fee to which we eventually agree,” Burakoff said in the letter.

In a response letter on Jan. 5, Thomas Henson, president and CEO of American Spirit Media, did not respond to the request but said negotiations came to a standstill while a representative of AT&T recently took at 19-day vacation. He claims AT&T would not continue negotiations without that representative, and communications picked up again with that representative on Wednesday.

"In the last four months, I have just concluded transmission renegotiations with 37 of your competitors. In no other situation was an agreement unable to be reached," Henson said in the letter.

In his letter, which was in response to the letter sent to Cohen and other local network affiliates and later directed to Henson, he urged the company to "come back with a reasonable request." 

His letter also mentioned the company's negotiations in other markets such as Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Jackson, Mississippi.

Henson said the cost for high-demand sports programming such as NFL games continues to increase for both the networks and affiliates like WSFX Fox Wilmington, along with its affiliates, pay in advance for the rights to provide NFL game broadcasts to the markets, he said. 

“No one is winning here,” Cohen said of the negotiations Friday. “It’s not like we haven’t been trying on our end … The public gets stuck in the middle, and I do feel badly about that.”

The local station, which spans New Hanover, Pender, Brunswick, Columbus and Bladen counties, has been providing its local DirecTV consumers other options to receive Fox Wilmington from other service providers. 

Cohen said about 35,000 households and businesses, which equates to about 20 percent of the Wilmington area market, holds services with AT&T.

“We’re just telling [those customers] they have the option to do that. Or you can buy an antenna and pick up the broadcasting for free. It’s just how people receive us. It's really up to them,” she said. “Our engineers are happy to walk people through how to set up an antenna. We want people to be able to see us.”
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