Contract dispute affecting Hargray subscribers nearing deadline

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Hargray Communications officials said Thursday they're optimistic that a pricing dispute with Viacom, which provides programming on several Hargray channels, will be resolved before a Monday deadline.

If not, several channels that carry Viacom programming, including MTV, Comedy Central, CMT, Nickelodeon, Spike TV, TV Land, and VH1, could go dark.

Hargray's existing contract with Viacom ends March 31.

Hargray mailed a letter to its customers March 19 informing them of the contentious discussions with Viacom, who wanted an "increase about 40 times more than the rate of inflation," the letter said.

Since then, there's been no change to the situation. Negotiations continue between Viacom, a mass media company, and the National Cable Television Cooperative, which represents Hargray and 750 other cable providers, Hargray vice president of sales and marketing Gerrit Albert said.

"Nothing has changed," he said. "We're still at an impasse, hoping Viacom can be reasonable and accept reasonable terms."

NCTC chief executive officer Richard Fickle said Thursday negotiations over the past few days had been productive, but a significant gap still existed over the rate increases.

"We're hopeful a deal can be done by the 31st, but there is still a lot of space between us on the rate issue," he said.

Hargray pays programmers such as Viacom a monthly per-channel fee. As contracts near expiration, new agreements are negotiated. A typical rate hike runs between 8 and 10 percent, much lower than Viacom's asking price.

Fickle said bills would have gone up several dollars a month if customers were to bear "the full brunt" of Viacom's requested increase. Albert called Viacom's terms a "completely unreasonable ask at this point."

Albert said negotiations with Viacom were likely to go down to the wire Monday.

If no agreement is reached, Albert said cable providers hope Viacom will continue offering their channels at the current rate while negotiations continue.

Fickle said that was unlikely.

"Viacom has told us they do not plan to offer the channels after the 31st if no agreement is made, which is what they've done in the past in other negotiations," he said. "It's their choice. Discontinuing the channels is not in our control."

Hargray will continue to update their nearly 30,000 customers as the deadline nears. Albert said the company plans to publish an open letter in The Island Packet on March 29 and 30.

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