Cablevision, Disney turn up the heat

Sniping grows as WABC cutoff deadline looms

The clock is ticking in the showdown between Disney and Cablevision over the cabler’s carriage of WABC-TV New York. Sunday night’s Oscarcast on ABC is the key leverage point for both sides.

Disney is hoping Cablevision will blink in order to prevent subscribers from complaining about the loss of Gotham’s ABC station on the day of such a major TV event. Cablevision is counting on Disney getting nervous about losing significant viewership in the nation’s largest TV market for the live telecast, which begins at 8 p.m. ET. Cablevision has about 3.1 million subscribers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. It serves roughly 40% of the 7.2 million households in the New York City TV market as defined by Nielsen.

Informed sources said reps from the companies continued to communicate today in the hopes of reaching a deal before the midnight Saturday deadline imposed by Disney.

As the deadline draws near, the sniping between the sides has become more pointed and more personal.

Cablevision on Friday sought to place the blame for the potential service disruption directly in the hands of Mouse House CEO Robert Iger.

“We call on Bob Iger to stop holding his own viewers hostage, end his threats to pull the plug on ABC at midnight and instead work with us to reach a fair agreement,” said Charles Schueler, Cablevision’s exec veep of communications. “The switch is in Bob Iger’s hands.”

Rebecca Campbell, prexy and g.m. of WABC-TV New York, responded with a jab at the Dolan clan, which has tight control of Cablevision and its Madison Square Garden spinoff unit.

“It’s an insult to Cablevision customers that with literally hours to go before losing access to (WABC), Cablevision is personally attacking Disney executives,” Campbell said. “If Cablevision CEO James Dolan and the Dolan family dynasty have any regard at all for the millions of customers who pay hard earned dollars for their service, they will order their troops to stop slinging mud and start cutting a deal.”

Execs at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences are undoubtedly watching the situation closely. The loss of a hunk of the Gotham aud could dent Oscarcast viewership in the year when the Acad went to great lengths to generate more urgency to the awards competish by expanding the best picture race to 10 nominees, from five.

“We hope it is resolved by Sunday night,” said AMPAS spokeswoman Leslie Unger.

Cablevision has sought up amp up the political pressure on Disney, issuing a list of more than 50 state and federal elected officials who are urging Disney to keep WABC on Cablevision while negotiations continue. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has called for the FCC to get involved in refereeing retrans disputes, but the FCC has so far declined to comment on the Cablevision-Disney spat.

Disney set off the public battle with Cablevision on Monday when it announced that it would pull the station as of Sunday if the sides could not reach a retrans pact. Disney said it has been issue monthly extensions of its previous retrans pact with Cablevision for the past two years as it sought a new agreement for WABC. The Mouse’s tussle with Cablevision does not involve carriage rights to any of its cable channels, which makes it an interesting test case for the market rate of retrans pacts between broadcasters and cable operators.

Broadcasters are focused on squeezing coin out of cable operators for retrans rights at a time when advertising revenues are down and local stations are struggling.

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 for WABC, the only one of the 10 ABC O&Os affected by the dispute. Fox’s five-year deal is believed to start at a monthly fee of about 40 cents per subscriber and climb to a little more than 80 cents per sub by the end of the term.

Broadcasters maintain the Big Four affiliate stations tend to be among the most-watched channels on a cable operators’ lineup and thus they should command the kind of per-sub fees that cable channels such as TNT and USA Network receive. Cable operators by law have had to negotiate retransmission consent agreements with local broadcasters for nearly 20 years, but only in the past few years have stations pressed hard for cash payments rather than promotional support or the purchase of advertising time by the cable operator on the local station.

Cable operators maintain that the spike in retrans fees will ultimately be born by consumers in the form of higher rates, which are inevitably as programming costs rise.

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