GCI, KTUU dispute could lead to blackout of programming in rural Alaska

Michelle Theriault Boots

KTUU Channel 2 will go dark in more than 20 rural communities one minute after midnight Wednesday if the station and its cable distributor, GCI, can't reach a new contract agreement.

Barrow, Bethel, Cordova, Kodiak, Kotzebue, Nome, Valdez, two North Slope oil-field housing complexes and 13 smaller villages will lose access to Channel 2, Alaska's main NBC affiliate if the companies don't strike a deal, the broadcaster said Monday.

After trading acrimonious public statements, the two parties were in negotiations Monday, said David Morris, a GCI company spokesman.

What's clear: The relationship between the two Alaska communications titans has changed.

The fight comes as GCI waits for final Federal Communications Commission approval of its purchase of KTVA Channel 11. The company so far has invested $20 million in hopes it will become a robust competitor to KTUU, including a new state-of-the-art studio.

The move set off an Alaska television arms race, with lucrative advertising dollars and a statewide audience of viewers at stake.

Earlier this year, KTUU announced plans to build its own new, state-of-the-art headquarters. (The broadcaster says an expansion had been in the works for more than a year.)

It also led Alaska broadcasters in asking the FCC not to clear the sale of KTVA, saying the dominant distributor of television would favor its own content and eventually choke out competitors.

"We were joined by virtually every other broadcaster in the state," said Andy MacLeod, KTUU's general manager.

Morris, of GCI, argues the contract dispute isn't a direct result of the awkward new relationship between the two companies. But it's certainly the backdrop.

"I can't speak whether that's coloring KTUU's decision making process," he said.

The specifics of the dispute are complicated.

KTUU says the cable distributor is pushing a contract that would "lock" its programming into GCI distribution for a far longer time than KTUU wants, and for minimal payment.

"GCI is choosing to hold its 7,000 rural cable subscribers hostage in a fruitless attempt to force KTUU-TV into committing to an unprecedented 12 year agreement," the company said in a statement issued on Friday.

GCI's take is that KTUU wants to charge $2.5 million to allow the cable company to broadcast its content, a service it has never charged for in the past.

"KTUU demands unreasonable payments and refuses to enter into a fair, long-term agreement," GCI spat back in a release posted on its website.

In the short term, if a blackout happens, some rural Alaskans who rely on KTUU for local news and NBC programming will still be able to catch nightly news through the Alaska Rural Communications Service, an arm of Alaska Public Broadcasting that provides a mix of programming from network broadcasters for free to rural communities, including Bethel.

People in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region are loyal evening TV news watchers, said Sophie Evan, a reporter and Yup'ik-language translator for KYUK radio. But most already watch it on the ARCS broadcast because it's free, she said.

For the moment, GCI is waiting for another showdown between rivals to resolve. The government shutdown has put on hold the FCC approval necessary for the company to begin operating a revamped KTVA.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.