'Thumbs' becomes an issue for Disney-ABC

As Roger Ebert recovers from cancer surgery, a contract dispute between the critic and Disney ABC-Domestic Television has gone public.

Ebert, in the midst of negotiating a new contract for the syndicated “At the Movies With Ebert and Roeper,” is still unable to appear on television because throat surgery has rendered him temporarily voiceless, though he is back at work reviewing for the Chicago Sun-Times. Guest hosts, ranging from the New York Times’ A.O. Scott to blogger Kim Morgan, have filled in for Ebert on the show, and Dallas Observer critic Robert Wilonsky is onboard for the next few months.

According to a Disney-ABC statement released Friday, Ebert’s representatives have withheld the use of the show’s signature “thumbs up, thumbs down” feature — owned by Ebert and the estate of the late Gene Siskel — until a new contract is signed.

But Ebert wrote in an email and on his Web site Friday that while he found Disney-ABC’s first offer for the use of the thumbs “offensively low,” he never told Disney he was not letting them use the thumbs on this week’s show. “I was not contacted by a Disney publicist or by e-mail,” he wrote.

“I am discussing with Disney my association with the show that Gene Siskel and I started more than 30 years ago,” wrote Ebert. “In addition to my personal involvement, we are discussing the continued use of our thumbs trademarks, owned by myself and the Siskel family.

“Contrary to Disney’s press release, I did not demand the removal of the thumbs,” he wrote, recalling events over the weekend of Aug. 17-20, “They made a first offer on Friday which I considered offensively low. I responded with a counteroffer. They did not reply to this, and on Monday ordered the thumbs removed from the show. This is not something I expected after an association of over 22 years. I had made it clear the thumbs could remain during good-faith negotiations.

“During my absence from the balcony, I have been excited to participate in the show in ways other than being on the set. “I love the show and I love the thumbs and I hope we will all be reunited soon.”

In its statement Friday, Disney-ABC Domestic Television said: “We at DADT remain hopeful that Roger will return to the show. We have kept his ‘seat in the balcony’ open for the past 14 months and will continue to do so, utilizing guest critics who have appeared with Richard Roeper.”

DADT added: “Most importantly, we continue to offer Roger our sincere wishes for a full recovery.” 

Keeping the TV show running without Ebert has been a challenge for Disney-ABC. The company went to considerable expense to create a “Balcony Archive” of 20 years of reviews from Ebert, Siskel and Roeper, available at AtTheMoviesTV.com. Ebert hosted a live online chat to promote the site on Aug. 2.

But he was not pleased when Ebertandroepertv.com posted “exclusive” his print reviews from the Sun-Times, which are posted at Rogerebert.com. The TV site was told they did not have the rights to do so and asked to run partial quotes with links to Rogerebert.com instead.

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