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Deadlocked negotiations spur Dish Network to block Watertown stations carrying CBS, Fox

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Dish Network customers watching CBS or Fox during the wee hours of Thursday morning witnessed the blackout firsthand.

At 2 a.m. Thursday, the satellite television provider blocked its customers in the north country from receiving programming offered by Watertown stations WWNY-7 News and WNYF-Fox 28 after failing to reach a contract agreement with United Communications Corp., the Kenosha, Wis.-based parent company of the stations. Although the two sides agreed to financial terms of the three-year contract weeks ago, they are at odds over programming rights, said Kenneth L. Dowdell, vice president of United Communications.

Mr. Dowdell said Dish is seeking contract terms that would make United relinquish programming rights it has as an affiliate of CBS and Fox, which it is unwilling to do. United recently offered Dish revised proposals to avoid the blackout, he said, but the company wouldn’t compromise.

“We have contracts with our programming providers — CBS and Fox — that develop programs and make them available to us,” Mr. Dowdell said. “We have only limited rights to make those programs available beyond that. So we have to respect those contracts, but Dish is asking us to violate them. And this is their language they’ve demanded we sign. This is a big company that has other blackouts (with broadcasters) going on right now, but they’re hard to find because it doesn’t list them.”

The blackout came on the heels of a nine-day temporary contract extension, approved after the previous three-year contract between the two parties expired. Dish also blocked stations United operates in Mankato, Minn.

But on Thursday, Dish issued a press release that described the rift between the two parties differently.

“We have agreed to key financial terms, yet United has chosen to bring consumers into an avoidable dispute by blocking customers’ access to these CBS and Fox affiliates,” said Sruta Vootkuru, Dish director of programming, in the release. “United seems to have drifted away from its public service commitment to communities, but Dish remains ready to work with United to bring local content back to viewers.”

Customers who visit Dish’s website will notice it blames the blackout on “unreasonable demands” made by United.

“We remain committed to reaching an agreement,” language on the website states. “We hope that United Communications Corp. will embrace a reasonable attitude, so that we can keep your local channels on Dish.”

But Mr. Dowdell, who said Dish is now posturing in the media, said he does not believe the company is willing to continue talks with United.

“I think they understand our position, but Dish has planted its feet in the ground,” he said.

Dish Network has been responsible for 15 of the 35 longest-running television blackouts since 2005 in which stations operated by affiliates have been dropped, according to a study published in September by SNL Financial. Its longest blackout lasted 175 days in 2009, which ranks as the sixth longest among multichannel providers. Time Warner Cable ranked first with the longest blackout, which lasted 413 days from Dec. 16, 2006, to Feb. 1, 2008.

Dish customers can call the company’s customer service line at 855-318-0572.

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