AT&T U-verse Mad Enough to Deny Subs AMC’s Mad Men?

AT&T U-verse subscribers may miss out on the latest chapter in AMC’s Mad Men saga, as the carrier has warned its 2.3 million customers that it may have no choice but to pull the plug on the Rainbow Media-owned network on July 14.

In a message beamed to its subs’ set-top boxes, AT&T said it “may be forced to remove” AMC and sibling nets IFC and WE tv “due to [Rainbow’s] unreasonable demands.” The crawl has run on all three networks since Friday, the day after Mad Men was nominated for 17 prime time Emmy Awards.

AT&T’s existing carriage deal with Rainbow expired on July 1, but both sides agreed to an emergency extension of 14 days in order to continue negotiations.

Should the networks go dark upon the expiration of the extension, AT&T U-verse customers will miss out on the season four premiere of Mad Men, which bows July 25. While negotiations began several months ago, Rainbow said the situation didn’t reach a crisis point until the operator alerted its subs to the impasse.

“It is troubling that AT&T is threatening to yank AMC, WE tv and IFC, and leave their customers without the hottest show on television…just before the premiere of the new season,” Rainbow said in a statement. “AT&T is acting in an aggressive manner that puts their corporate interests ahead of their customers. We are negotiating in good faith with AT&T and are hopeful that we can reach an agreement as soon as possible so that our viewers don’t lose out.”

As is generally the case with most rancorous carriage disputes, pricing is the primary cause of the AT&T-Rainbow deadlock. Analysts estimate AMC’s sub fee at around 25 cents per customer per month, a number that puts the 26-year-old network in the same neighborhood as A&E and Lifetime. That said, the August 2009 launch of the WE tv spinoff Wedding Central likely added a degree of difficulty to the negotiations.

“Based on aggregate data we obtained from third-party industry sources and our own subscribers, some of the Rainbow channels are among the least-watched and most overpriced per viewer compared to other major programming providers,” AT&T said in a statement. “They’re also trying to force the renegotiation of a contract for one of their other channels that is not yet expired and force us to carry a new channel that wasn’t even formally presented to us until after the recent July 1 contract extension.”

U-verse subs expressed their discontent over the weekend, taking to AT&T’s official chat room to protest the potential loss of the three networks. As of Monday morning, some 462 messages were posted to the AT&T U-verse “TV Programming” board, and the vast majority took the operator to task for endangering the current channel lineup.

For its part, AT&T characterized the standoff as a battle to protect the rights of its subscribers. “We…can’t and won’t give in to unreasonable deals that unfairly disadvantage our customers. However, if a fair agreement isn’t reached by July 14, Rainbow could require us to remove their programming to try to force us into an unfair deal,” the carrier said.

As of March 31, 2010, AMC boasted 88 million subscribers. AT&T U-verse subs account for less than 3 percent of the total head count. WE tv reaches 63 million subs, while IFC is in 50.5 million homes, per Cablevision’s first quarter earnings.

The season-three premiere of Mad Men drew 2.76 million viewers on August 16, 2009, notching the series’ all-time largest delivery, and outperforming the previous opener by 33 percent.