Net Deals Get Sprung

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Maybe it was the season, or collegial feelings bathing the cable industry during a week of feel-good events dubbed “spring break.” Whatever the cause, a number of MSOs and programming groups consummated or announced far-reaching carriage deals last week.

As always, leverage helps. The networks securing deals belonged to two of the biggest conglomerates in media: The Walt Disney Co. and Time Warner Inc.

Disney’s ABC Cable Networks Group scored a multiyear affiliation pact with Adelphia Communications Corp., encompassing four networks, and Mediacom Communications Corp. agreed to a new long-term affiliation deal with all of Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting System Inc. cable channels.

Meanwhile, momentum for less pricey, long-term pacts with Disney’s ESPN continued, as Cable One Inc. and Cablevision Systems Corp. both signed renewals for the sports programmer’s networks.

Adelphia and ABC Cable Networks Group said last week they completed a deal that had been agreed to in principle late last year.

The multiyear pact, terms of which were not disclosed, covers renewals for Disney Channel and ABC Family, and significant launches for SoapNet and Toon Disney, according to Ben Pyne, senior vice president affiliates sales and marketing at ABC Cable.

ADELPHIA’S ROLLING

“We had some minimal penetration on a digital basis for SoapNet and Toon Disney. This will really get the ball rolling immediately,” Pyne said, adding the parties had reached an agreement in principle in 2003, but “papering” held up the deal’s completion.

To that end, Adelphia had already added SoapNet and Toon Disney to some systems. “As we’ve built out our digital network, we’ve been adding a number of services,” said Judy Meyka, Adelphia senior vice president of programming. “We’ve already rolled out those services to some of our headends serving Los Angeles, south Florida and parts of New England. It’s a continuing process.”

The deal also includes retransmission consent for ABC-owned stations in three markets — KABC in Los Angeles, WTVD in Raleigh, N.C., and WTVG in Toledo, Ohio.

The pact also covers HDTV carriage of ABC programming.

The agreement does not include on-demand rights, which the parties continue to talk about for Disney Channel. “There have been some initial discussions. Adelphia as a company is still assessing on-demand strategies, whether for free content, in addition to charging for movies,” Meyka said. “Disney Channel basically has a subscription VOD model that we’re still looking at, at this point.”

Pyne noted that ABC Cable has deals for Disney Channel on-demand with Cablevision and Insight Communications Co., and is continuing to talk with other distributors. “For now, we’re focused on Disney Channel, but we are looking at opportunities for the other networks in the SVOD space,” Pyne said.

Insight last month completed an agreement to offer ABC News on an on-demand basis, largely for magazine-type programming.

MEDIACOM COMITY

At Mediacom, officials said March 29 that the MSO had come to terms on a new agreement providing for analog and digital carriage of Cable News Network, CNN Headline News, TBS Superstation, Turner Network Television, Cartoon Network, TCM, Turner South, Boomerang, CNNfn and CNN International.

“We are extremely pleased that Mediacom has renewed all of our programming agreements and we look forward to continuing our long, positive relationships with this important affiliate,” Turner president of domestic distribution Andy Heller said in a statement.

Mediacom senior vice president of programming and human resources Italia Commisso Weinand told Multichannel News that Mediacom in general was close to completing its lengthy effort to renegotiate long-term deals with programming suppliers.

After Mediacom completed its acquisition of about 800,000 customers from AT&T Broadband in late 2001, it essentially told programmers the newly enlarged company wanted new deals.

“I’m able to announce that after our six-month goal of getting it done, two and one-half years later, 90% of our agreements have been negotiated,” Weinand said, jocularly, in an interview for an upcoming “MSO Spotlight” report on Mediacom.

The deals, she added, have often encompassed retransmission consent for broadcast channels, HDTV rights and other factors. “We’re very proud of that,” she said.

Not all of Mediacom’s new deals generated press releases, but ones that did were with Fox Cable Networks Group in 2002 and with MTV Networks this past January.

ESPN MARCHES ON

In the sports realm, Cable One Inc. on Wednesday officially became the first member to opt in for the National Cable Television Cooperative’s new deal with ESPN. Under the long-term agreement, Cable One, as Multichannel News reported on March 11, will continue to distribute ESPN and ESPN2 on expanded basic; will carry ESPNews and ESPN Classic; and will add ESPN HD and ESPN Deportes.

That same day, ESPN evidently came to terms with Cablevision. Deal points were not disclosed, but sources close to both parties said that the pact was similar in nature to multiyear ESPN agreements reached earlier this year with Cox Communications Inc., Charter Communications Inc. and the NCTC.

All of those contracts are said to call for annual rate increases in the 7% range — substantially less than the yearly 20% hikes ESPN has been levying — in exchange for the ESPN HD and ESPN Deportes launches.

The ESPN/Cablevision deal had been hinted at during the Cable Positive benefit dinner last Tuesday night in New York by Cablevision CEO Jim Dolan and ABC Cable president Anne Sweeney.

Reading from a TelePrompTer, Dolan said, “As I look around the room and see all the programmers and cable operators represented here tonight, I am reminded of the amazing things we can do when we band together as an industry.”

Then he added: “Sue each other, take each other’s channels off the air,” an apparent ad lib that drew lots of laughs.

Sweeney laughed hard, too, before protesting, “Not us!” Dolan’s reply: “No, we like you guys, right? We signed our deal today. We’re friends again, that’s the way it works.”

A report about that exchange in the Multichannel Newsday fax last Thursday led to Cablevision and ESPN confirming the agreement later that day.

Kent Gibbons, Linda Moss and R. Thomas Umstead contributed to this story.

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