Fox, Cablevision Suspend Dispute Negotiations

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Cablevision, the service provider for 3 million customers in the New York area, and Fox parent News Corp. failed to solve a dispute over rates Saturday, leaving baseball fans who wanted to watch the opener of the National League Championship Series with a blank screen instead of a marquee pitching matchup.

Both sides met throughout the afternoon Saturday but adjourned before the start of the playoff game between the Phillies and the San Francisco Giants, said Cablevision spokesman Jim Maiella. Negotiators plan to meet again Sunday.

The stalemate that led to Fox pulling its channels and, briefly, online content from subscribers in parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut early Saturday was the latest in a series of programming fee disputes that have led to blackouts of programs such as the Oscars. But the impasse amounted to more than corporate wrangling for Bronx resident Clifford Taylor.

"We live for sports," Taylor said. "Die-hard New Yorker fans, we love to see the Yankees and Giants play."

Hard-core hometown fans like Taylor could still hold out hope: No New York teams were scheduled for games broadcast on Fox until Sunday, when the New York Giants play the Detroit Lions. The American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Texas Rangers, which began Friday, is airing on TBS and isn't affected by the dispute.

On Saturday night, Theresa McCluskey, 42, of Hicksville was at a bar in Penn Station with three friends as they waited for a train and watched All-Star pitchers Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum in the first game of the NLCS.

"We pay enough money for every station that we get now," she said. "Why subject us to not having our stations that we paid for originally?"

"We'll have to come out to the bar, spend more money," she added, laughing.

According to Cablevision, the dispute is about $80 million, to be precise. The cable company says that News Corp. is asking for that much more a year for access to 12 Fox channels, including those in dispute. That would more than double the yearly rate to $150 million, says the company, which is demanding that Fox enter into binding arbitration.

Fox, meanwhile, blames Cablevision Systems Corp. "In an effort to avoid this very situation, we started this process in May and made numerous reasonable proposals, Mike Hopkins, president of Fox Networks Affiliate Sales and Marketing, said in an earlier release.

"As long as there is a serious effort on the part of Cablevision, we will be at the table," Fox spokesman Scott Grogin said Saturday. "We want to settle this as quickly as possible."

After negotiations ended later in the day, Cablevision issued a statement accusing News Corp. of using the sporting events "to hold viewers hostage," calling it shameful.

By Saturday afternoon, Cablevision's Internet customers were blocked from watching Fox content on the network's website and on the video site Hulu, prompting U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., to call on the Federal Communications Commission to broker an agreement and step in to "defend Internet freedom and consumer rights."

A person familiar with the situation who wasn't authorized to speak on the record because negotiations are ongoing said online video access would be temporarily restored by the evening to accommodate Cablevision Internet customers who paid for cable television services through other providers not involved in the dispute.

Other lawmakers have weighed in on the issue. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., were among those calling for arbitration and Israel said Friday he had asked the FCC to intervene.

The FCC encouraged the two parties to agree to binding arbitration without suspending service and did not specify a mediator, according to Jack Pratt, a spokesman for Israel.

Fox channels went black for Cablevision customers early Saturday shortly after midnight, when their previous deal expired. The blackout affects Fox 5 and My9 in New York and the Philadelphia-based Fox29. Subscribers also lost access to cable channels Fox Business Network, NatGeo Wild and Fox Deportes.

For Shinequa Gaillard, of the Bronx, this isn't the first time this has happened: Other Cablevision fee disputes earlier this year blacked out The Walt Disney Co.'s ABC broadcast signal and Scripps Networks Interactive Inc.'s Food Network and HGTV.

"I think neither one of the two are thinking about the customers and the viewers — neither one of them," Gaillard said on her way to work in Manhattan on Saturday. "As consumers, what can we do? Nothing."

And in a separate dispute with satellite TV company Dish Network Corp., Fox cut access on Oct. 1 to 19 regional sports networks, FX and the National Geographic Channel for some 14.3 million Dish subscribers. That fight foreshadows more tough negotiations, as the deal for Fox broadcast signals on Dish expires Oct. 31.
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