Dish, Comcast grapple over net, Style; Sinclair, Time Warner Cable scuffle

There was smoke but no New Year’s Day fire from two TV carriage fights that went down to the wire this weekend.

Dish Network wound up inking a last-minute extension with Comcast for E! and Style Network to avoid a service disruption. Time Warner Cable and Sinclair Broadcast Group agreed to a two-week extension in their retransmission consent battle involving Fox, ABC, CW and MyNetwork stations in 21 markets.

Both contract battles were up against a midnight Dec. 31 deadline, and negotiations went into the evening on New Year’s Eve.

Comcast announced shortly before 8 p.m. ET that it had reached a “short-term extension in the hopes of reaching a long-term solution” to a new carriage pact with satcaster Dish for E! and Style Network. The extension runs through Tuesday.

Financial terms of the Dish’s exisiting contracts for E! and Style were unclear, but Comcast is likely looking for a significant boost in the subscriber fees for E! as the channel has blossomed in the past few years with the success of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” and other celeb-reality franchises. Dish at present has about 14.3 million subscribers.

Minutes after Comcast announced its extension, TWC released the news of its two-week respite with Sinclair. The TWC-Sinclair fight involves such mid-sized markets as Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, covering about 4 million TWC subs.

TWC and Sinclair both ratcheted the rhetoric in the 48 hours before the deadline — with both sides accusing the other of failing to engage in good-faith negotiations. The New Year’s Eve retrans wrangle was an echo of New Year’s Eve 2009, when Fox and TWC execs were locked in tense negotiations during the holiday frame. That deal set the template for a slew of retrans negotiations between cable operators and broadcasters last year — some of which have been contentious.

“We thank our customers for their patience and support through these negotiations,” TWC said in its statement.

TWC on Friday made it clear in statement that it was not in danger of losing access to Fox or ABC programming in the affected Sinclair markets. Fox is obligated to provide TWC with network programming in the event the cabler hits a retrans impasse with one of its affiliate stations.

That provision is a source of angst for non-O&O station owners, because they can’t use the threat of lost network programming as leverage in negotiations. However, it’s understood that TWC has to pay a high price for access to Fox’s national network feed, which means that TWC still has plenty of incentive to come to terms with local affiliate stations.

“Our goal is to protect Fox viewers from any service interruptions and allow our affiliate partners to continue to negotiate a retransmission agreement without deadline pressure,” Fox said in a statement. “We also believe this deal provides significant incentive to both sides to come to an agreement that protects consumers.”

Like Fox, Disney-ABC TV Group inked a mammoth carriage contract with TWC last year. It’s unclear if ABC has a similar agreement with TWC as Fox regarding its national network feed.

The TWC-Sinclair talks involve Fox affils in Pittsburgh, San Antonio, Dayton and Columbus Ohio, Buffalo, N.Y. and Charleston, S.C.; ABC affiliates in Dayton and Columbus and CW’s affil in Milwaukee, among other markets.

The Sinclair-Time Warner fight is sure to add heat next year to the brewing fight on Capitol Hill and at the FCC to overhaul the nearly 20-year-old retransmission consent rule.

Amid the flare-ups, there was some good news last week on the retrans front, Hearst Television, which owns 29 TV stations, announced a retrans Thursday deal with DirecTV, three weeks after its outlets in Boston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and other markets began notifying viewers that negotiations were underway against a Dec. 31 deadline.

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