Disney yanks WABC off Cablevision

Action comes less than 24 hours before Oscars

And the Oscar won’t be going to… Cablevision subscribers in New York.

The clock was ticking on Sunday afternoon, as Cablevision and Disney continued their war of words — and both Sen. John Kerry and the FCC entered the fray.

But with just a few hours left until the Academy Awards were set to begin, neither side appeared closer to a deal allowing New York-area Cablevision subscribers the ability to watch the movie world’s biggest night.

“The FCC is in contact with representatives of both companies and is monitoring the situation closely,” said FCC media bureau chief William Lake. “Consumers should not suffer due to the inability of these two companies to successfully negotiate a deal. We urge both parties to quickly reach a resolution for the benefit of viewers.” Earlier, Sen. John Kerry, who chairs the communications subcommittee in the Senate, also sent a statement on Sunday, urging both sides come to a resolution immediately via arbitration — or else get the government involved.

“It’s neither my place nor my goal to pick sides in this dispute,” Sen. Kerry said, calling consumers “collateral damage” in the standoff. “Three million households, including many who will not know where to get a digital receiver today or how to install it, will find that a service they pay for monthly is not delivering what was promised. “If a true impasse is reached, then I urge the partes to seek the assistance of the FCC to resolve it or enter into arbitration,” he said. “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.”

In response, Cablevision said it would agree ” it would agree to government calls for binding arbitration with ABC Disney in order to immediately return ABC to Cablevision customers. ”

WABC prexy/GM Rebecca Campbell, meanwhile, said “the ball is in (Cablevision’s) court.”

“We have sent Cablevision a new proposal, and are awaiting their response,” she said in a statement. “If Cablevision is serious about doing right by their customers and returning ABC7 and its programming to them, then they need to act now.”

ABC’s owned-and-operated WABC went dark Saturday night on New York-area Cablevision systems, as neither side has budged so far in their Great Retransmission Standoff.

Cablevision’s WABC viewers woke up Sunday to a Cablevision message blasting Disney and ABC, instead of “This Week with George Stephanopolous.”

A last-minute save could still bring WABC — and the Oscars — back to Cablevision subs by 8 p.m. ET; but that wasn’t looking likely by mid-day Sunday.

The war of words escalated on Sunday in the hours before the Academy Awards, as WABC sent out another press release, this time citing “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 previous statement. “Cablevision customers who want ABC7 should make that switch now.”

“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.

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

The static came as ABC and Cablevision were not able to come to an retransmission agreement by the midnight Saturday deadline imposed by Disney.

The Alphabet’s WABC-TV was in the middle of a season two off-net repeat of “Lost” — “Three Minutes,” which centers on Michael’s decision to betray his fellow castaways — when the cord was yanked.

WABC replaced the feed it sends to Cablevision with a sternly-worded on-screen message: “Cablevision betrayed you again. First HGTV and Food Network, now they lost ABC 7. Enough is Enough. Go to SaveABC7.com to switch service now.”

It didn’t take long for Cablevision to block out that message — but in the process, several Cablevision subscribers reported online that the MSO accidentally also blocked out WNBC and WCBS, among other channels, for up to 15 minutes.

In its on-screen note to viewers, Cablevision even goes as far as to suggest that audiences watch ABC fare via Hulu.

“ABC has pulled WABC-7,” Cablevision’s replacement message now reads in the channel 7 slot. “Cablevision pays ABC’s parent company over $200 million per year. The price you pay for TV matters. ABC is demanding $40 million more per year. We wanted to keep WABC-7 on the air. Pulling WABC off Cablevision was wrong. And we’re not the only ones to think so.

“We are working hard to get WABC back on the air. ABC has rejected our offers. We have agreements with CBS, NBC, Fox and Univision. We apologize for their actions. Call 1-877-NO-TV-TAX. Watch WABC-7 free over the air with a digital antenna. View ABC programming at Hulu.com or ABC.com. Thank You.”

In her statement — sent moments after the screen went dark — WABC prexy/GM Rebecca Campbell said the move followed “two years of negotiations, during which we worked diligently, up to the final moments, to reach an agreement.”

“Cablevision pocketed almost $8 billion last year, and now customers aren’t getting what they pay for…again,” she wrote. “It’s time for Jim Dolan and the Dolan Family Dynasty to finally step up, be fair, and do what’s right for our viewers.”

In response, Cablevision demanded that Disney return WABC to the provider while the negotiations continue.

“It is now painfully clear to millions of New York area households that Disney CEO Bob Iger will hold his own ABC viewers hostage in order to extract $40 million in new fees from Cablevision,” said Cablevision exec VP of communications Charles Schueler. “We call on Bob Iger to immediately return ABC to Cablevision customers while we continue to work to reach a fair agreement.”

Leading up to the signal scrub, WABC’s 11 p.m. newscast featured several advertisements touted Cablevision rival Verizon FiOS as an alternative to receive the station’s signal.

Most Cablevision subscribers likely won’t notice the missing channel until Sunday evening — when ABC is set to air this year’s Oscarcast. That means the real deadline still looms.

Disney is hoping Cablevision will blink by Sunday evening in order to prevent subscribers from complaining about the loss of Gotham’s ABC station on the day of such a major TV event — particularly after they wake up and find the channel gone on Sunday.

Cablevision, meanwhile, 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.

Connecticut subscribers won’t necessarily be without the Oscars, however: Systems in that state also carry New Haven-based ABC affil WTNH.

Informed sources said reps from the companies continued to communicate Saturday in the hopes of reaching a deal before the midnight deadline — but it became obvious by Saturday evening that no deal was imminent, and that a blackout would take place.

As the deadline drew near, the sniping between the sides became 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.

“The switch is in Bob Iger’s hands,” Schueler said.

Campbell responded with a jab at the Dolan clan, which has tight control of Cablevision and its Madison Square Garden spinoff unit.

“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,” Campbell said.

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.

(Article was updated on March 7 at 10:25 a.m.)