ABC Threatens to Pull the Plug on Cablevision

Another day, another broadcaster headed for a showdown with the local cable company over retransmission fees. This time it’s Disney’s WABC-7 in New York, which is threatening to yank its signal from Cablevision’s pay-TV service. Like many battles that have come before it, this one will likely end in a last-minute compromise — but if not, TV viewers in the Greater New York City area may be forced to hook up antennas for over-the-air access or (*gasp*) miss the Oscars.

ABC has given Cablevision until midnight on March 7 to negotiate a retrans agreement or risk losing its broadcast programming, which includes popular TV shows like Lost, Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, as well as live events like this weekend’s Academy Awards broadcast.

Both sides have set up web sites and plan to launch TV, radio and print ads to help “educate” consumers about where they stand on the issues — namely, who gets paid and how much. On its web site, www.saveabc7.com, ABC complains that Cablevision charges consumers $18 for its basic broadcast tier of TV stations, but then doesn’t pass any of that money on to the broadcaster. Meanwhile, Cablevision says Disney is seeking $40 million to continue airing its ABC broadcasts to cable subscribers, which it equates to a 20 percent “tax” on top of the $200 million it already pays for Disney programming.

But this fight is unlikely to result in subscribers’ screens going blank. As we saw with the standoff between Time Warner Cable and Fox earlier this year, and Time Warner Cable and Viacom the year before, such brinksmanship usually ends with an 11th-hour deal, or at worst an extension of the negotiations without a blackout until a deal can be reached. That said, Cablevision has held fast against programmers in the past, most recently against Scripps Networks, which pulled the Food Network and HGTV off its New York cable system for three weeks earlier this year.

But unlike Scripps, ABC’s broadcast signals are available for free over the air — and much of its most popular scripted programming is available on demand on Hulu and ABC.com. While the online component won’t help Cablevision subscribers that want to watch Lost as it airs (ABC’s programs are generally available the day after a show airs in broadcast), and certainly won’t help those that want to watch the Oscars, it could serve as a leveraging chip for Cablevision, which might argue that making broadcast programming available on demand online is cutting into broadcast TV viewing.

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