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Fox, Cablevision execs huddle in talks

But sides still spar over arbitration proposals

Cablevision and Fox execs are huddling at News Corp. headquarters in Gotham today in an eleventh-hour attempt to hammer out a deal that would prevent Fox’s New York and Philadelphia stations from going dark for Cablevision’s 3 million subscribers at midnight tonight.

But even as the execs met behind closed doors, the sides have been fighting a public war of words over Cablevision’s interest in taking the issue to binding arbitration as a means of ensuring that Fox’s signals would stay on its cable systems beyond the contract deadline. A senior official from the Federal Communications Commission contacted the sides in the late afternoon, but there were differing interpretations of what the FCC proposed.

Sources indicated that the FCC outreach was to encourage the sides to go to a third-party arbitrator. Cablevision in a statement indicated that the FCC had made a more substantial move to bring the fight to arbitration, though a commission source disputed that interpretation.

“We have accepted the FCC’s offer and believe they have the power to order it,” Cablevision’s statement said. An FCC rep declined comment on Cablevision’s assertion.

Cablevision earlier today distribbed a list of 27 pols and other elected officials calling on the sides to engage in binding arbitration to prevent the stations from going dark on Saturday.

“If we can’t reach agreement, Cablevision will accept the bipartisan calls of 27 elected officials for binding arbitration to solve this matter without any interruption in programming,” said Charles Schueler, Cablevision’s exec veep of communications. “We urge the leadership of News Corp. to put viewers first and join us in this fair and impartial process.”

But Fox has steadfastly resisted the call for arbitration, just as it did back in late December in a similar carriage-deal showdown with Time Warner Cable.

“Cablevision needs to stop hiding behind a call for binding arbitration and negotiate in good faith. We appreciate the requests to enter arbitration and we share the concern for protecting viewers’ access to programming,” Fox said in a statement issued after Cablevision’s statement regarding the FCC.

“As we previously stated, arbitration would, unfortunately, reward Cablevision for refusing to negotiate fairly and will only ensure that more unnecessary disputes arise in the future. … We will continue to negotiate and are committed to putting all our resources towards reaching a fair resolution.”

The carriage agreement fight between the media giants has escalated during the past two weeks as the deadline drew near. The Gotham market has been the focus of dueling advertisements as the sides spin their positions to consumers. If the Fox-owned WNYW and WWOR New York and WTFX Philadelphia are yanked from Cablevision’s systems, a large chunk of Gotham viewers would lose access to WNYW’s coverage of Sunday’s Detroit Lions-New York Giants game, as well as games in Major League Baseball’s National League Championship Series.

Cablevision maintains Fox is asking for extraordinary increases in the retransmission consent coin for its broadcast stations. Cablevision asserts that it now pays News Corp. $70 million a year in carriage fees for its entire fleet of cable channels, and that Fox’s proposal for new carriage deals including the broadcast stations would hike those fees to $150 million a year. Fox has been quick to point out that Cablevision forks out a whopping $124 million a year to two channels that it owns, MSG and MSG Plus, that draw significantly lower ratings than Fox’s top outlets.

Fox on Thursday turned down a proposal from local pols for the sides to submit to binding arbitration in an effort to prevent the stations from going dark.

Cablevision had said it would submit the arbitration process. The push for arbitration in carriage disputes has been made by Cablevision and other cable giants at the FCC, where a petition for an overhaul of retransmission consent laws is pending.

Leading the negotiations charge for Fox is Mike Hopkins, Fox Networks prexy of affiliate sales and marketing. It’s not entirely clear who’s in the room from Cablevision, though as of this ayem it was not believed to include Cablevision prexy and CEO James Dolan or chief operating officer Tom Rutledge.

At least one analyst who has followed this year’s spate of retransmission consent scuffles predicts that Cablevision is fighting a losing battle in trying to stare down News Corp.

“News Corp. is not going to give an inch, we highly doubt the government (FCC) is going to get involved if the Fox signal gets pulled and Cablevision cannot be without Fox programming for more than a few days,” wrote Richard Greenfield of BTIG Research.

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