Will Cablevision air Oscars?

Disney threatens to pull WABC-TV from East Coast cabler

The Oscarcast is being held hostage in a retransmission brawl between Disney and Cablevision.

Disney has gone public with its plan to yank WABC-TV New York from Cablevision systems serving 3.3 million subscribers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut as of 12:01 a.m. Sunday — the day of the 82nd annual Academy Awards — unless the companies come to terms on a retrans pact. Disney said late Monday it has been issuing month-to-month extensions of its previous retrans deal with Cablevision for the past two years.

By Tuesday, both companies were escalating the fight with on-air messages to viewers warning of the brewing showdown. Cablevision even created a Facebook page dubbed “Cablevision Viewers Say: No New Fees, ABC!” Meanwhile, the Mouse has launched its own website spin campaign, http://www.saveABC7.com, complete with a toll-free number that viewers can call for updates.

Clearly, ABC’s live telecast of the Oscars is a big event that adds some urgency to the Mouse’s deadline. Like other broadcasters, Disney is focused on squeezing coin out of cable operators for the right to carry ABC O&O stations in 10 markets on their cable menus.

The Fox stations set a new industry benchmark for retrans fees with its fierce battle over the New Year’s holiday with Time Warner Cable. Disney is believed to be asking for a similar level of compensation from Cablevision. Fox’s five-year deal is believed to start at around 40 cents per subscriber and climb to a little more than 80 cents per sub by the end of the term.

Charles Schueler, Cablevision exec veep of communications and community relations, said the Mouse was asking for $40 million in what he described as “a new TV tax” on its subscribers.

“It is not fair to force Cablevision customers to pay a new TV tax for programming ABC Disney gives away free, both over-the-air and on the Internet. In tough economic times, it is shameful that ABC Disney would hold viewers hostage by threatening to pull the plug, and we urge them to work with us to reach a fair agreement,” Schueler said.

WABC prexy and g.m. Rebecca Campbell said Cablevision’s stance left them no choice but to set a hard deadline for pulling the station. Disney further noted that Cablevision charges its customers a minimum of $18 a month for its most basic level of service, which includes Gotham’s local broadcast stations.

“We can no longer sit back and allow Cablevision to use our shows for free while they continue to charge their customers for them,” Campbell said. “Despite our best efforts, it has now become clear that Cablevision has no intention of coming to a fair agreement.”

It’s understood that Cablevision execs had balked at paying more than a modest per-sub fee for WABC. Cablevision’s statements have noted that it pays Disney “more than $200 million a year” for programming, but that includes all of the Mouse’s many cable outlets. The retrans pact in question is strictly about WABC-TV.

The Disney-Cablevision brawl is but one of many battles brewing or pending between broadcasters and cable operators over retrans rights. The Fox-Time Warner Cable pact has emboldened broadcasters to seek cash rather than other forms of compensation for their signals.

Disney may be ensnared in another high-profile retrans battle later this year as it faces a Sept. 1 deadline of its existing retrans pact with Time Warner Cable. In May 2000, ABC O&Os in seven major markets were yanked off Time Warner Cable for more than 24 hours in a highly public retrans dispute.

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