Cablevision, Disney/ABC strike deal

WABC is back on New York cable systems

It came down to the wire, but New York-area Cablevision viewers got their Oscar fix.

Disney/ABC restored service of its New York flagship, WABC, to Cablevision customers 10 minutes after the Oscars began, ending a day-long standoff.

“We’ve made significant progress, and have reached an agreement in principle that recognizes the fair value of ABC7, with deal points that we expect to finalize with Cablevision,” said WABC prexy/GM Rebecca Campbell. “Given this movement, we’re pleased to announce that ABC7 will return to Cablevision households while we work to complete our negotiations.”

That means the affected 3 million subscribers were able to watch the Academy Awards live along with the rest of the country.

“We are happy to report that WABC Channel 7 has returned to Cablevision’s 3 million New York area homes,” said Cablevision communications exec VP Charles Schueler. “We are very grateful to our customers for their support and pleased to welcome ABC back.”

Terms of the deal were not immediately revealed. It’s believed that ABC was asking for around $1 a subscriber, while Cablevision was willing to give only a fraction of that.

And even though crisis, for the most part, was averted in this case, more retransmission smackdowns are likely to take place later this year.

For Disney/ABC, the Cablevision experience will likely set a pricing precedent for this fall — when the conglom is on tap to negotiate a retransmission deal with behemoth Time Warner Cable.

Rival conglom insiders note that Disney didn’t make many friends over the years with cable operators, many of whom feel that the Mouse abused them by extracting major annual increases for ESPN.

Getting a deal done was important for both sides. According to purely anecdotal evidence, Cablevision was losing subs to rivals — particularly Verizon FiOS, which was being heavily marketed on WABC last week.

And once the Oscars were over, ABC would lose a major leverage point. ABC still has some upcoming events to use as a negotiating chip — such as the return of “Dancing with the Stars” — although nothing will be as big as the Oscars.

Plus, ABC doesn’t have a major sporting event on tap to use as leverage. The Alphabet’s next major event is the “Lost” finale in May.

Resolution came after what appeared to be a hopeless situation on Sunday afternoon, with press releases flying back and forth between Cablevision and Disney/ABC — and plenty of politicians getting into the fray as well.

“It’s not what I want,” Oscars producer Bill Mechanic said curtly before the festivities began, fearing the worst.

But with just a few hours left until the Academy Awards were set to begin, word spread outside the Kodak Theater that Disney and Cablevision were negotiating fast and furiously to get things done before the kudocast began.

Yet both sides also kept up the rhetoric all afternoon, firing a succession of press releases — which frequently were repeats of earlier statements, just with ever-escalating nastiness.

Cablevision began pushing the idea of agreeing to binding arbitration between the two sides — something that was first suggested by Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate’s communications subcommittee.

To back their side up, the cable provider trotted out statements from several politicians, including New York Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos and state Sen. Craig Johnson, as well as Congressman Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.).

But arbitration appeared to be a nonstarter for Disney. WABC prexy/GM Campbell, meanwhile, said Disney had already sent Cablevision a new proposal, and was waiting for its response.

“Instead of issuing statements about arbitration, it would be more constructive for Cablevision to deal with the offer that we have on the table,” Campbell said in a statement. “It’s time for Jim Dolan and the Dolan Family Dynasty to step up, be fair, and do what’s right for their customers. The ball is in their court.”

In another release, WABC also cited “Cablevision’s legendary greed and disregard.”

“Now the only way for their subscribers to get ABC7 is to ditch Cablevision and switch to a provider that cares about them,” WABC’s Campbell said in a separate statement. “Cablevision customers who want ABC7 should make that switch now.”

Meanwhile, as things remained ugly in the Great Retransmission War of Twenty Ten, Cablevision hoped to keep its movie fan subscribers at bay by offering up free VOD movies — including Oscar-nommed pics like “The Hurt Locker,” “District 9” and “Up” –all day.

Earlier in the day, in its first official comment about the matter, FCC media bureau chief William Lake said the agency was monitoring the situation closely and in contact with both congloms.

And Sen. Kerry warned that if Cablevision and Disney didn’t come up with a resolution immediately via arbitration, the FCC would indeed have to get involved.

“This is the latest example of consumers getting caught in the middle because the high stakes incentives created in these negotiations are not working for the average customer, who just expects their programming to be there when they want it,” he said.

ABC’s owned-and-operated WABC went dark Saturday night on New York-area Cablevision systems during a repeat of “Lost.” And viewers woke up Sunday to a Cablevision message blasting Disney and ABC, instead of “This Week with George Stephanopolous.”

“Cablevision” was a top trending topic on Twitter even in cities where the standoff had little or no impact. Both Cablevision (@No_ABC_Tax) and WABC (@SaveABC7) launched feeds on the microblogging site, in which the congloms were re-tweeting messages that took their side. Both were at least in agreement on one thing: Sending out the message that Cablevision subscribers could still watch WABC via over-the-air antennas.

Although the mood online seemed slightly more anti-Cablevision than anti-Disney, both companies were receiving their licks from angry customers and viewers.

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.