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Raleigh parade sponsorship switches from WRAL to WTVD – and a fight over broadcast rights erupts

WTVD on Monday was named the official sponsor of this year’s Raleigh Christmas Parade, marking the first time in 44 years that the parade has not been sponsored by WTVD’s main rival, WRAL.

But even without sponsorship, WRAL says it’s not going anywhere. It still plans to broadcast the parade, too.

“We are delighted that we are going to be broadcasting the Raleigh Christmas Parade for the 44th year,” Steve Hammel, WRAL vice president and general manager, said. “There is no way the hometown station would not broadcast this. We love connecting with our hometown, our owners live here and it was never even a question.”

WTVD or ABC11, which is owned by Disney, has its main newsroom in Durham but also has newsrooms in downtown Raleigh and in Fayetteville. The board of the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association voted on Oct. 3 to grant the parade to WTVD, but the news was not confirmed until Monday.

WRAL’s desire to broadcast the parade without sponsorship could put the future of the Christmas parade in jeopardy, Jennifer Martin, executive director of the merchants association, said Monday.

“The exclusive media broadcast partnership is what helps pay for the cost of the parade,” said Martin. Martin said a sponsor’s contract promises it “exclusive rights” to broadcast. If another station broadcasts anyway, the sponsor could pay less money than it offered when it believed it had those exclusive broadcast rights.

“Without that exclusive media partnership – whoever it is – it actually puts the parade in jeopardy of not happening in Raleigh,” said Martin. “If we can’t guarantee exclusive anymore, what guarantees that sponsorship? Right now that’s what we’re selling. And then it becomes, how do we pay for the parade? I don’t know if WRAL realizes that they are essentially putting the future of Raleigh’s Christmas parade in jeopardy.”

Hammel responded Monday: “If GRMA is interested in the future of the parade, they would have gone with our more lucrative offer. We deeply care about this parade and the generations of viewers who have come to expect our live coverage. It’s why we’ve done it for 43 years. It’s why we will continue broadcasting it for the 44th year.”

The financial terms of the WTVD contract were not disclosed, though Hammel claims that WRAL offered a signing bonus that would have made its offer worth more than WTVD’s.

Martin emphasized that WTVD has not threatened to pay less money for its sponsorship since WRAL announced its intentions. But she fears WTVD could.

She said WRAL’s contract in the past has specified that if other stations tried to broadcast the parade, they would receive a cease and desist letter. She said WTVD’s contract has the same language, but “WRAL is wanting to broadcast anyway.”

Caroline Welch, president and general manager of WTVD, said after Monday’s news conference that her station had expected the same considerations afforded previous sponsors.

“I don’t want to get into a tit for tat,” Welch said. “It’s a parade. We’re just very excited to be chosen as the official partner. It was never just about money, it’s about the parade and the holiday tradition. We feel there are opportunities for this parade that ABC11 is uniquely positioned to help with.”

Legal issues?

The legality of WRAL broadcasting the parade is “still unknown,” said Martin.

“We’re checking into it to see,” she said. “Others have always respected them and not done this, and I would hope that they would be good community partners and do the same.”

“We are hoping WRAL will respect the agreement that has always been in place for them, but they have always had the rights for the exclusive broadcast partner and will continue to honor that for other stations. I think that it’s really discouraging to see that another entity who was not selected to be the media partner would still choose to do this.”

Hammel said he is confident WRAL can broadcast legally. “We wouldn’t broadcast the parade unless we know for certain it’s legal,” he said. “It’s legal.”

It’s also a sort of public service, Hammel said.

“As the hometown community station, it’s what viewers expect us to do, and we’re not going to let them down,” he said.

What happened?

The decision to grant the parade to WTVD was made by the board of the merchants association, which runs the parade through its Shop Local Raleigh initiative.

Martin said there was a long negotiation process with WRAL, and ultimately the merchants association sought other partnership opportunities.

Martin said the offers from WRAL and WTVD were essentially the same, but Hammel said WRAL also offered an additional signing bonus if a vote in its favor took place on Oct. 2, the same day presentations were made to the board by teams from WRAL and WTVD.

But Martin said the actual vote took place on Oct. 3 at a meeting that was attended by all but one of the GRMA board members.

She said the vote to award the contract to WTVD was unanimous. WTVD was granted a 1-year contract. Though she didn’t say the terms, Martin said that, traditionally, media partners sell additional sponsorships to offset their costs.

Ultimately, Martin said the decision was about bringing “new energy” to the parade.

“I think part of it is that the parade is 73 years old, we talked about some new energy for the parade, some new ideas. We very much have appreciated their partnership, we appreciate what they’ve done in the past for the parade. This was a business decision for us. The ideas that were presented (by WTVD) were very positive. This is some fresh energy.”

Brooke Cain: 919-829-4579, @brookecain

Raleigh Christmas Parade

This year’s parade is the 73rd in Raleigh’s history.

The Raleigh Christmas Parade always takes place on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. This year’s parade takes place on Saturday, Nov. 18.

The 1.4-mile route begins on Hillsborough Street at St. Mary’s Street and proceeds to the State Capitol, where it turns right onto Salisbury and then left on Morgan, and proceeds down Fayetteville Street to Lenoir Street.

The parade, which typically attracts about 65,000 visitors to downtown, reaches up to 250,000 people over TV and online broadcasts, according to the merchants association.

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