In the end, the Mouse moved the needle with Cablevision by its resolve to yank WABC-TV New York from the cabler, even on Hollywood’s biggest night.
But Cablevision played its own kind of hardball with Disney by digging in its heels and forcing the impasse over retrans fees to get to the shutoff point as of 12:01 a.m. ET Sunday. The urgency of WABC being dark for Cablevision’s 3.1 million subscribers spurred both sides to bend a bit for the sake of reaching an agreement in principle — 13 minutes into the Sunday’s live Oscarcast.
Specifics about the deal were still sketchy Monday, and some deal points were still being hammered out. Insiders indicated that the carriage agreement for WABC would run three to four years and start out at a monthly fee of at least 35¢-40¢ per subscriber, rising to at least 60¢-65¢ by the end of the term.
From the Mouse’s perspective, that’s a marked increase from the roughly 20¢ that Cablevision had been offering — and it’s a big win given that Cablevision has not paid any cash compensation for WABC in the past. It’s also an important benchmark for Disney’s upcoming retrans talks with Time Warner Cable, which will involve carriage not only of WABC but also KABC Los Angeles and five other ABC O&Os.
Cablevision, however, was determined to fight off Disney’s demands, along the lines of the slightly higher terms that the Fox O&O stations commanded from Time Warner Cable in a similar retrans showdown in January. One industry observer familiar with retrans issues speculated that Cablevision’s top brass always intended to come up in price, it was just a matter of how much and when.
There’s lingering animosity toward Disney among cable operators for the Mouse’s history of seeking aggressive price increases for sports cabler ESPN and that didn’t help the dynamic in the room as Disney pressed for new fees for WABC.
The talks between Cablevision and Disney heated up last week after Disney went public with its deadline and went nowhere on Saturday as the midnight cutoff loomed.
Disney execs pushed their Cablevision counterparts to come to Gotham for a face-to-face session but were rebuffed. On Sunday, the sides communicated by phone and email all day, inching toward an agreement.
Disney CEO Bob Iger and Disney-ABC TV Group prexy Anne Sweeney were en route to the Kodak Theater for the Academy Awards when they gave the greenlight for Cablevision to restore the signal at roughly 8:43 p.m. ET.
The negotiations were principally led for Cablevision by CEO James Dolan and chief operating officer Tom Rutledge.
Disney’s core group consisted of Sweeney; ESPN boss George Bodenheimer (who is co-prez of Disney’s Media Networks unit with Sweeney); Ben Pyne, prexy of global distribution; and David Preschlack, exec veep of Disney and ESPN U.S. affiliate sales and marketing.
Although Disney pressed the point that it had been seeking a new deal for WABC for the past two years, the fitful talks that led to Sunday’s agreement began in earnest in January when the Mouse put Cablevision on notice of its March 6 deadline, after the expiration of its most recently monthly extension for WABC.
Dolan and Rutledge had face-to-face sessions with Iger, Sweeney and other Mouse execs on at least two occasions, in Gotham and in L.A., during the past two months. But Cablevision had no incentive to move until the clock was ticking and Oscar’s envelopes were opening.