Updated: WABC, Cablevision Rift Heats Up

Congress is now weighing in on the retransmission impasse between ABC Television’s WABC-TV and Cablevision.

While Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is making himself the arbiter of retransmission standoffs, urging Federal Communications Commission involvement, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) is arguing there should be no government interference.

No one, neither legislators nor consumers, are happy about the looming prospect of WABC-TV going dark Sunday (March 7) on Cablevision’s system serving Long Island, Westchester, Brooklyn and the Bronx (N.Y.). More than 3 million Cablevision subscribers would have to find other alternatives than their cable system to view The Academy Awards and other ABC programming. Lucky for the consumer, there are choices, including over-the-air, FiOS and satellite.

“These are private negotiations, but there’s a public interest at stake. Its resolution matters to the consumers who take hard earned money out of their wallets each month to pay their cable bills and shouldn’t become collateral damage in wars between executives,” wrote Kerry, who would prefer that WABC not pull its signal while the parties continue to negotiate.

Yes, those discussions are private, Rep. Barton said in his counter-letter to the FCC. “Actual discussion of the deal is best left between the respective companies and their viewers, free from government interference or cajoling. The alternative is to ask the government to weigh the relative value of carriage and of particularly programming. This is a risky proposition,” Barton wrote. “Service providers and programmers are closest to their viewers and in a better position than the government to weigh the costs and benefits of carriage deals….If either party dislikes the deal, either is free to walk away. And both have something to lose: viewers.”

Both ABC Disney and Cablevision have pulled out all the stops to get their side of the story out to consumers, with toll-free phone numbers, Web sites, Facebook groups and advertising. Corporate statements have been issued and revised, getting more and more heated.

For the past two years, WABC agreed to extend its existing Cablevision retransmission contract month-to-month as the two parties tried to work out an agreement. Like many broadcasters, ABC is seeking compensation from Cablevision to air its signal, for which Cablevision charges a fee. Cablevision, arguing that it already pays ABC Disney $200 million for its cable channels, doesn’t believe it should have to pay anything more to clear WABC.

Below, the latest volley of statements:

“It’s time for Cablevision to stop spinning this issue and get serious about doing right by their customers. The fact is that over and over again Cablevision picks fights with programmers and it is Cablevision subscribers who suffer the loss. The inconvenient truth about Cablevision is that it pockets hundreds of millions of dollars in subscriber fees each year by carrying ABC7,” said Rebecca Campbell, president and general manager, WABC-TV.

“We believe Senator Kerry is correct and ABC Disney should not pull the plug and should work with us in good faith to reach an agreement that is fair for Cablevision customers.  Cablevision already pays ABC Disney more than $200 million a year for their programming, and now they want $40 million in new fees, a 20 percent increase, for exactly the same channels. ABC Disney should not put viewers in the middle and instead work with us to reach agreement,” the Cablevision statement said.

Related: WABC, Cablevision Clash Over Retrans