WHIG-TV, Nash schools at odds over football coverage
Bunnie Hagler | Special to The Enterprise
Southern Nash runs a play against Eastern Alamance in a December 2019 playoff game. With COVID-19 limiting the number of media personnel who can attend games this season, Nash County Public Schools is only permitting its streaming partner, Tar River Sports, to cover games this season, which doesn’t sit well with WHIG-TV, a Rocky Mount community station that has aired taped-delay broadcasts of Nash County high school football games for nearly two decades.
This story involves two businesses with ties to The Enterprise. Tar River Sports is a livestreaming service of SouthernNashNews.com, which shares office space with The Enterprise in downtown Spring Hope. WHIG-TV broadcasts “The Kay Files,” a weekly spotlight on cold case crimes featuring Enterprise reporter Lindell J. Kay. To avoid conflicts of interest arising from these relationships, this story was produced by our sister newspaper, The Wilson Times. Its author has no affiliation with WHIG-TV or Tar River Sports.
The rights of media to cover high school sports is at the center of a dispute between WHIG-TV, a community station in Rocky Mount that serves Nash, Edgecombe and Wilson counties, and Nash County Public Schools.
Sandra Smith, the WHIG-TV general manager, said the station has been covering local high school football games for 18 years, but was informed last week that it wouldn’t be allowed to film the games — which the station has always aired on a taped-delay basis — this season.
Nash County Public Schools athletic director Angie Miller said media access to athletic events this year is limited under North Carolina High School Athletic Association COVID-19 guidelines developed with input from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Those guidelines state that only one streaming partner with no more than four essential personnel in place are permitted at any NCHSAA-member athletic event.
“I have never had a conversation with WHIG-TV until this past week,” Miller said. “I understand they’ve been doing it for 18 years with just a gentlemen’s agreement and we’ve had our first business conversation. We’ve already got someone else in streaming our services and I said I’d be willing to have a conversation with them about next fall, to sit down and have a meeting about that. That wouldn’t involve sponsors and money for schools because the schools get every penny of our streaming that we’re doing at this time.”
Tar River Sports has been contracted to livestream NCPS athletic events to a pay-per-view online audience. With attendance at games limited to 25 nonessential personnel, schools are not selling game tickets to the public, instead dividing them for sale to families of the participating student-athletes. Thus, many schools are opting to livestream their events to users for a fee. Wilson County Schools recently entered into a partnership with the National Federation of State High School Associations, which uses the video production company Pixellot to automatically stream games.
“We are meeting all the (North Carolina) High School Athletic Association guidelines, but we’re also trying to follow the DHHS guidelines as far as social distancing,” Miller said. “And right now we are making no (gate) profit at all in any of our games, so the streaming service has really been very good for us. We have an agreement and a contract to have our games streamed.”
Smith said that because WHIG-TV is seen as competition for that revenue, it is not being allowed to film games as in the past. She contends that because the station runs the games over the weekend following Friday night games, its broadcasts don’t compete with the live product, although Tar River Sports archives game recordings for on-demand viewing.
“I understand athletics are suffering tremendously because of COVID,” Smith said. “I totally get that. And do not have a problem at all with that.”
Smith said she offered to have her crew film from the stands, since with a limited number of spectators, social distancing shouldn’t be a problem.
However, there’s more to it than that, Miller said.
“During this time, we’re only able to offer a certain number of tickets and we’re offering those to our parents first, and we’ve not been able to offer them to media or other avenues,” she said.
Smith insisted her station has the right to film the games, which WHIG-TV viewers have been enjoying for years, even though they don’t bring in much advertising revenue.
“I want my rights. This is not right that we can’t film on public property,” she said.
However, even public schools have regulations in place for visitors, from the media to the general public.
In addition to its COVID-19 guidelines, the NCHSAA has maintained a set of media regulations for years. However, many of the rules are not followed closely, including the one that states, “The filming or taping of the majority of an NCHSAA event is prohibited, unless prior approval is secured. The media outlet may not air a total of more than three (3) minutes of footage and any such footage must include visual credit to the NCHSAA and the championship rights holder, if any.”
WHIG-TV’s practice of airing a condensed version of an entire football game would seem to violate that policy. However, Smith said she’s never had a conversation with the NCHSAA about the station’s rights to film games and air them on a taped-delay basis, other than to pay the $50 per-game fee for covering postseason games.
“They have never asked us and we have talked to them every year, we get credentials from them every year,” Smith said. “We have to get credentials. We have talked to them and when they have asked us for money when we did a playoff game, we would send a check whenever we get playoffs. That’s the only money they’ve ever asked us for.”
Smith maintained it was never a problem for her crew to be on campus filming games in the past. In fact, she said it was left up to her commentator to work with the coaches at the four Nash County high schools — Nash Central, Northern Nash, Rocky Mount and Southern Nash — to determine if they could film a game on campus that week.
“If I need to pay a school, we’re willing to do that,” she said. “We’ve never been asked. They know we come. We get the schedule from the coaches; they know we’re there. As a matter of fact, we have to let the coaches know ahead of time which games we’re doing. ‘We’re coming to you this week, if that’s OK.’ ... So that they will make sure they know how much media is in the press box.”
Miller reiterated that she was open to discussing a contract this summer with WHIG-TV for the 2021 fall season but, for now, her hands were tied.
“We’re going to meet all the guidelines set by the NCHSAA, but also we’ve got to meet the DHHS guidelines or they can shut us down or charge us $500 from the state association because we cannot go over our max number,” she said.
Smith declined to say what action WHIG-TV will take, but she remained optimistic that the station’s days of airing local high school football games are not over.
“I’d really rather not say what we’re going to do until I definitely have gotten this worked out, but I am trying to work around it,” she said. “And I think next season will be a whole different animal.”
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