Just as the Academy Awards telecast on ABC was getting under way, the network’s flagship station WABC was back on Cablevision.
“We have made significant progress and have reached an agreement in principle,” WABC general manager Rebecca Campbell said.
She said the two sides will continue to work on finalizing a deal that will play WABC a retransmission consent fee. The amount was not specified, but Campbell noted that it “recognizes the fair value of ABC7.”
Cablevision’s communications head Charles Schueler also called the deal “fair to our customers and in line with our other programming agreements.”
According to Twitter accounts from Cablevision subscribers, WABC was restored at around 8:45 p.m. ET, 15 minutes into the Oscar ceremony.
The 18-hour blackout began at 12:01 a.m. Sunday morning when some 3.3 million Cablevision subscribers in the New York area lost their ABC signal after the cable operator and WABC didn’t make any progress in their tense negotiations over retransmission consent.
On Sunday morning, WABC said it had sent Cablevision a new proposal but hadn’t heard back.
Throughout the day, pressure on ABC from New York state politicians to restore the signal before the annual telecast of the Academy Awards and to agree to binding arbitration mounted.
Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communication, Technology and the Internet, called the dispute a “game of chicken being played again and again” and argued that broadcasters should not be allowed to pull their signals unless a cable company is negotiating in bad faith.
Cablevision quickly agreed to arbitration, though ABC, much like Fox in its recent carriage dispute with Time Warner Cable, dismissed that possibility.
“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.
Also on Sunday, Cablevision unveiled plans to offset the dropping of ABC from its channel lineup.
The cable operator offered its subscribers free access to all of its video-on-demand movies, including hot Oscar contenders “The Hurt Locker,” “Up,” “District 9,” “Inglorious Basterds” and “The Cove.”
Additionally, the company made information from the Oscar telecast available through live blogging and other means.
However, Comcast subscribers complained that the on-demand function was not working.
It was not the fist technical glitch that surrounded the ABC blackout, which came in the middle of “Lost.” (WABC carries “Lost” reruns from 11:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Saturday night.)
The last thing Cablevision subscribers tuned to WABC saw was the following message from the station: “Cablevision betrayed you again. First HGTV and Food Network, now they lost ABC7,” it read, referencing Cablevision’s recent dispute with Scripps that kept the two cable networks off the cable operator for 20 days. “Enough is enough.”
Twitter was abuzz about a snafu on Cablevision’s part. Instead of pulling only ABC, the cable operator accidentally took down all broadcast networks on its systems.
But perhaps the most intriguing Twitter dispatch Sunday came not from ABC, Cablevision or a politician, but from “Lost” executive producer Damon Lindelof.
“Okay, Cablevision,” Lindelof wrote. “You win. We’ll tell you what the island is. NOW GIVE THE PEOPLE THEIR ABC!!!!!”
At the heart of the standoff is the retransmission consent fees ABC is seeking from Cablevision for the right to carry its flagship New York station.
Cablevision had implied that ABC was looking for a fee of $1 dollar per month per subscriber, the same target that Fox had in its retransmission fight with Time Warner Cable in December.
Cablevision’s initial counteroffer was said to be around 25 cents.
Cablevision’s argument is that it already pays Disney more than $200 million a year and doesn’t want to shell out $40 million more for WABC.
ABC countered that the $200 million is paid for various other Disney-owned channels and that Cablevision charges customers for a basic package that includes ABC as well as the other broadcast networks while getting the ABC programming for free.
Securing retransmission revenue from cable providers has become a top priority for the broadcast networks, which have been looking for a second revenue stream to offset dwindling ad dollars.
Fox was successful in a similar standoff with Time Warner Cable on New Year’s Eve.