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Business/Economy

GCI cable customers lose access to channels as contract dispute with TV network owners continues

GCI Store at Northern Lights and C Street. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

GCI cable customers across Alaska are without access to three network channels as contract negotiations continue between the company and the local network affiliates.

Local Fox, ABC and The CW channels have been unavailable since Jan. 1, when previous contracts expired between the cable company and Vision Alaska and Coastal Television, the Alaska operators of Fox, ABC and CW, according to a statement from GCI.

Cable companies pay a fee for each channel that is broadcast to customers.

“GCI tries to negotiate reasonable rates that help keep costs low for customers but sometimes programmers propose costs that are unrealistically high,” GCI’s statement said. “In those cases when GCI cannot negotiate a more reasonable rate and an agreed upon rate is not reached, the network will pull the channel from our customers until its demands are met.”

Vision Alaska and Coastal Television called GCI’s actions “heartless” in an online statement, saying it “demonstrated a total disregard for their customers.”

Vision Alaska and Coastal Television requested a nearly 40% rate increase this year, according to GCI.

Heather Handyside, a spokeswoman for GCI, said it’s unclear when the companies may reach an agreement.

“We began negotiations in July in order to prevent the current situation so it’s frustrating to find ourselves and our customers in this position,” Handyside said in an email Monday. “The GCI team sent Coastal Television and Vision Alaska our most recent proposal on December 29 but they haven’t responded yet. We’ve reached out and hope to hear from them soon with either an acceptance of our proposal or with a reasonable counter-offer.”

Handyside said the networks rejected a temporary extension proposal that would have kept the channels on air until a final agreement was reached.

In its online statement, Coastal Television Broadcasting denied that and said the networks had agreed to extend the existing contract agreements.

“During a time of an urgent and historical attempt by Alaska’s State and Local Leadership to ask every Alaskan to stay home and avoid going out, GCI took away 3 major Broadcast Stations leaving Alaskans with no warning to their customers from their lineup,” the statement said. “This unnecessary move on the part of GCI has placed yet another hardship on Alaskans trying their best to weather the past nine months of staying at home and attempting to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Coastal Television plans to move forward on negotiations with GCI, but said in the statement that they believe customers should immediately have the channels restored.

Blackouts, where channels are not available, are rare for GCI, Handyside said. In the past, the company experienced another blackout with the same providers for broadcasting in only the Juneau area, she said.

GCI suggested customers sign up for Youtube or Hulu accounts temporarily to access content. Customers in larger cities may also be able to reach the local channels through an antenna, the company said.

Customers will receive a $4 credit on their bill this month and Handyside said the credit may be extended if the blackout continues.

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