HOWARD WARD: WRAL Gets Last Word, Almost
I promise. This is the last time this year that I'm writing about the basketball-versus-golf fiasco that exists for Sandhills area television viewers.
Most of us have heaped our venom on WRAL-TV, the CBS affiliate in Raleigh that we are locked into by our cable television companies. Truth is, WRAL probably isn't as much of a bad guy in this scenario as we'd like to think.
But the station is the carrier of CBS programming in our area, and when it opts to carry something other than the network golf we want to see, our voices can get pretty loud.
We all know that this is because basketball, ACC-style, is the king of sports in this state. I don't have any numbers, but I would bet that a basketball game between Duke and, say Maryland, would draw a much larger viewing audience than the Nissan Open.
There is no telling what the ratio of interest would be if the game was between North Carolina and N.C. State.
So we golfers know we're fighting a losing battle when we wage a war of words against WRAL's practice of replacing golf with basketball and reruns of the "Little House on the Prairie."
I know the good people at WRAL are tired of fending off the missiles we've hurled their way in the past few weeks. But to their credit, or at least to the credit of Director of Programming John Harris, they have never lost their cool. They haven't gotten nasty, as you can see for yourself in some of the responses that appear below.
In a reply to the letter from Bob Kinelski that appeared in this column last week, Harris wrote:
"Thank you for the feedback. We run into program conflicts every year during basketball season and yesterday's dilemma was a prime example. We are the longtime ACC affiliate in the market and must carry a minimum number of games each season. The games are immensely popular among viewers -- especially when local teams are involved.
"We always try to make the preempted programming available if possible, and the golf tournament yesterday did air on the WRAL digital NewsChannel on cable. That was our only option with golf yesterday, and I'm sorry if you weren't able to receive it. We are occasionally able to move programming to WRAZ (FOX50), but that is not possible now because of their other programming commitments such as NASCAR.
"We did have a one-hour gap between ACC games yesterday where we could have shown a little of the golf tournament -- but we learned long ago that you don't start a sporting event on television if you can't finish it. That's why we chose to show golf in its entirety on the digital cable channel and run a separate program to bridge the two ACC ball games.
"We are very sensitive to viewer concerns and can appreciate your frustration. We have only one primary channel, however, and we must defer to ACC basketball this time of year."
Mr. Kinelski replied:
"Thank you for responding to my letter, and while I agree with you about trying to air only a segment of a live broadcast -- that would merely enrage your viewers further -- I cannot accept that you are really putting forth a sincere effort to serve your viewers.
"Concerning the airing of the golf telecast on your WRAL digital news channel, for example, if you really had an interest in your viewers wouldn't it make sense to market this offering to your golfing viewers? Why couldn't you make an announcement at the outset of the basketball game about the alternate channel or, at the very least, create a scroll that would run across the bottom of the screen of the ACC telecast every 15 minutes or so and direct viewers to the news channel? Replying to frustrated viewers on an after-the-fact, one-to-one basis, as you have done with me, seems to be a rather primitive form of marketing the alternative offering -- wouldn't you agree?
"Finally, while I certainly agree that ACC basketball games are popular with a segment of your viewers, can you explain why a 'long-time ACC affiliate in the market' (to use your words) would deign to allow the same game to be aired by the NBC affiliate at the same time? What possible benefit does telecast duplication on competing networks have for your viewers? Wouldn't it make more sense to negotiate with the competing NBC affiliate (and have the ACC games flip-flop between networks, for example) to ensure that a broader segment of the audience is served, rather than freezing out one segment in its entirety?
"I'm sorry, Mr. Harris, but paying lip service to your constituency only serves to further alienate them. Your business practices (poor marketing, telecast duplication, etc.) merely signal a lack of interest, leadership, or both."
"Thanks for the additional feedback. We do provide scrolling messages across the bottom of the screen around the time that golf would have started, but you must not have seen them. The NBC affiliate you are seeing is WECT-TV from the Wilmington television market. Just as WRAL is the licensee for the Raleigh market -- WECT has the same rights in Wilmington. The fact that you can pick them up does not affect our rights in this market, for most people can't see that station and don't have the "luxury" of this duplication. As always I appreciate your correspondence."
B.J. Grissinger of Pinehurst wrote:
"To be fair to WRAL, they did in fact show the final round of the Nissan Open where Charles Howell III defeated Phil Mickelson. They even advertised the preemption on their Web site under their TV programming, and where to find the golf.
"Digital Cable subscribers could find it on the WRAL Newschannel. I checked our Pinehurst lineup on the Time Warner Web site and could find no such channel. But I was switching around the channels on the cable box late Sunday night when I came upon the golf on Channel 256. The players were on the 18th hole but we did indeed get to watch the playoff; we just had to watch it on the one TV with a cable box.
"Next time when they list it as airing on the WRAL Newschannel, I will know better, that it is on Channel 256. But I guess that means that analog cable subscribers are out of luck.
John Barrett of Pinehurst wrote to Harris:
"I read with interest this column in the past Sunday edition. When I first encountered ACC bball pre-empting golf a couple of weeks earlier than the case Howard was referring to I wrote WRAL to complain and received a response from John Harris. While understanding WRAL's contractual responsibility with the ACC, I suggested that when a live event like a golf tournament is preempted that it should be offered on another channel. He stated that while they do sometimes run the golf on channel 256 concurrently (which they did for the Sunday of the tournament in the situation Howard was writing about), they are told by CBS if/when/how they can do this.
"You might want to print a follow-up to the column indicating those with digital cable should check Channel 256 if a golf event is preempted and also indicating that they can write to CBS at firstname.lastname@example.org to express their opinion.
"BTW, I sent a link to the column to the contact at WRAL and his response is attached."
The response by Harris reads:
"John, Thanks for the column. You are welcome to send comments to email@example.com.
"To clarify one misleading statement in the column -- the NBC station showing ACC basketball is not the NBC station from the Raleigh market. I assume it's WECT-TV -- the NBC station in Wilmington that also owns the ACC basketball rights in that market. The fact that you can also watch them in the Sandhills does not affect WRAL's rights to the games in this market. Most people don't have that option and do not see the games anywhere but WRAL."
WRAL 'Not Anti-Golf'
Harris even sent a letter to Hunter Chase, sports editor of The Pilot, regarding the columns:
"Hunter, I appreciate the sentiments expressed in Howard Ward's latest column. We do hear from a lot of golf fans who are frustrated by the programming conflicts that inevitably happen this time of year. Although we try to make affected programming available in some fashion -- we realize our alternate solutions will never suit everyone. The fact remains that ACC and NCAA basketball will indeed trump any other programming -- sports or otherwise -- this time of year.
"I have but one bone to pick with Howard, and that involves his comment about the ACC games being duplicated on an NBC station. It's not quite as simplistic as he led readers to believe.
"Please pass the following explanation on to Howard so he will have a more complete understanding of television syndication and out-of-market viewing:
"Raycom Sports/Lincoln Financial produces ACC basketball and syndicates the games on a market-by-market basis. WRAL is the ACC licensee for the Raleigh-Durham-Fayetteville market. It is the only station located in this market that can broadcast ACC basketball games produced by Raycom.
Viewers in certain parts of the Raleigh market can see stations from other television markets, however, and that's why people in the Sandhills are seeing the games on an NBC station as well as on WRAL. That station is WECT-TV -- the NBC affiliate in the Wilmington television market.
"WECT is the Raycom ACC affiliate -- so it will obviously carry most if not all of the same games that WRAL will offer. This does not change WRAL's contractual agreement or obligations at all. It simply gives viewers in Fayetteville and the Sandhills the luxury of seeing an out-of-market NBC affiliate.
"These situations usually exist in counties that border other television markets. For example, viewers in Wilson see WNCT-TV (CBS) and WITN-TV (NBC) on their cable systems in addition to WRAL and WNCN (the Raleigh market's official NBC affiliate). Some viewers in the western part of the Raleigh market can see stations from Greensboro and High Point. This "out-of-market" viewing dates back years and is governed by complex FCC rules.
"WRAL would love to prevent other ACC broadcasts from coming into our official 22-county territory -- but that's not possible and we just accept it as a fact of life in television.
"In closing, let me state in no uncertain terms that WRAL is not anti-golf. Many of us play and enjoy the game and WRAL's top manager is an avid golfer who lives right there in Southern Pines. We're proud that CBS offers so much golf coverage each season and we obviously do not set out to intentionally incur the wrath of golf fans every winter. We must program the station in the best manner possible, however, and in North Carolina college basketball rules.
"We'll continue to make any preempted programming available on digital channels or -- on occasion -- our sister station. We'll also do all we can to make people aware of the changes, but frankly we can't call up every golf fan and let them know personally. There will always be some disgruntled fans who will never be satisfied and that's a fact of life in the world of mass media."
OK, John, I'm through ranting on this subject. But I'm still going to be ticked off every time I want to watch a golf tournament that I can't get.
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