Fox execs head back to L.A.; Sides to speak Tuesday

On the Day 3 of the Cablevision-Fox blackout, relations between the companies took a turn for the worse as talks broke off Monday afternoon with no additional face-to-face meetings skedded any time soon.

The sides are expected to communicate by phone today, but key Fox execs flew back to L.A. today after spending most of last week in Gotham for the negotiations on a carriage deal that would restore Fox’s Gotham and Philadelphia stations to Cablevision’s 3 million New York-area subscribers.

Fox asserted in a statement that “no significant progress was made” in Monday’s brief meeting because “Cablevision continues to demand preferential treatment and (it) rejects the same fair terms that have been accepted by other providers in the market.”

Cablevision has been pushing for the sides to take the dispute to binding arbitration, a move supported by numerous pols and elected officials. On Monday, Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, both Democrats from New Jersey, joined the chorus of lawmakers urging the FCC to step in “to help resolve the dispute.” On Saturday, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a key player in telecom policy, sent a similar missive to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski on Saturday.

Adding to the urgency is Fox’s status as the broadcast home of baseball’s National League Championship series, which got under way on Saturday just as WNYW went dark on Cablevision.

But the FCC has so far stayed mum on the calls for it to step in as a referee in the dispute over the fees Fox is seeking for retransmission consent rights for WNYW and WWOR New York and WTXF Philadelphia (Cablevision serves about 28,000 subs in outlying areas of the Philly market).

Fox execs are convinced Cablevision — with an eye toward a World Series in which the Yankees might participate — is stalling at the negotiating table in hopes that the feds or FCC will take steps to force arbitration or muster a quick legislative rewrite of the FCC’s retransmission consent rule that mandates that cable, satellite and telco providers cut a deal with station owners for the right to carry their local signals. However, the wait-it-out strategy seems likely to cost Cablevision some subscribers in the short term.

A coalition of subscription TV providers already has a petition for retrans reform pending at the FCC. That petition was filed in March on the heels of Cablevision’s retrans scuffle with ABC, when WABC-TV went dark on Cablevision for most of a day on up through the first few minutes of the Alphabet’s March 7 Oscar telecast.

“It is increasingly clear that Cablevision’s real intention is to continue making this their subscribers’ problem in the hope that with enough inconvenience, politicians will intervene to protect Cablevision’s huge profits,” Fox said in Monday’s statement. “Only serious business-to-business negotiations will protect viewers, which should be everyone’s top priority.”

Cablevision maintains that Fox is looking for unreasonable hikes in retrans fees for its stations. Fox counters that other cablers and satcasters, including Time Warner Cable, have agreed to the terms it has on the table for Cablevision.

Cablevision has said that it now pays Fox a total of $70 million a year to carry all of its cable nets plus the Gotham and Philly TV stations, and with the retrans deal Fox has on the table, those fees would spike to $150 million. However, Fox is disputing the $150 million figure, say it is “simply not true.”

Cablevision sought to put the blame for the blackout on Fox for refusing arbitration and for insisting on pulling its signals.

“When broadcasters like News Corp. remove their signals, they hurt viewers in an attempt to gain business leverage,” said Charles Schueler, exec veep of communications for Cablevision. “Cablevision agrees to submit to binding arbitration, as called for by more than 50 elected officials from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut as the fastest and fairest way to return Fox programming to Cablevision viewers. We call on News Corp. to do the same.”

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