Which grinch stole Aladdin?

Synergies collide as Time Warner pulls Disney's ABC from its cable system.

Published May 2, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Time Warner cable managed to do what Scheherezade's husband could not: It stifled the storyteller.

From New York to California, Time Warner Cable subscribers hooked on ABC's much-anticipated "Arabian Nights," which debuted Sunday night to be continued Monday, awoke to find ABC no longer available. New York affiliate WABC ran what looked like a storm warning across the bottom of the screen on Sunday evening, urging viewers to call Time Warner Cable and complain. At 12:01 Monday morning, ABC programming was replaced with what looked like a test pattern, bearing a message from Time Warner.

"Disney has taken ABC away from you," read the lament seen in the homes of 3.5 million Time Warner Cable subscribers. "We offered a proposal that would have kept ABC for our customers. Disney said no."

The decision was the result of months of feuding between the media giants. It comes at the beginning of May sweeps week -- the moment when networks traditionally pull out all the stops in competition for market share. This is not the first time that Time Warner has squelched programming: For months it could not find room for the Fox News Channel in New York, and it is prepared to play a similar game of chicken with NBC over coverage of this year's Olympics. All of this comes, oddly, as the federal government is considering the approval of the company's merger with AOL.

But for the fans of the dazzling, special-effects laden "Arabian Nights" -- not to mention followers of "The Practice," "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and horse racing's Kentucky Derby -- the timing could not have been worse.

"It's unique in my experience, unique in the history of cable," said ABC spokeswoman Julie Hoover. "I can only liken this to the behavior of a schoolyard bully. They will beat up the kid in the schoolyard and they don't care if the teacher sees it. They don't care that the other kids don't like it, they just do it because they can."

ABC maintains that it is acting in good faith. The Disney-owned network had a contract with Time Warner that expired at the end of last year. Since then, ABC has provided five extensions allowing Time Warner Cable to continue to carry its content; as of Monday evening ABC had offered to extend that agreement through May 24. Time Warner had asked for an eight-month extension -- through the end of the year and, perhaps not coincidentally, the government's approval of its merger with AOL -- and therein lies the tale.

Or, in Scheherezade's case, the lack thereof.

"Disney is trying to inappropriately use its ownership of ABC to extract excessive and unreasonable terms for its cable TV channels," said Fred Dressler, senior vice president of programming for Time Warner Cable in a statement released to the press. It is its contention that Disney-ABC is the one playing hardball, demanding Time Warner offer the Disney Channel as a basic cable station rather than the premium billing it now receives. At issue, of course, is the amount of "compensation" Disney will receive for its content: Money makes the carpet fly.

ABC claims that this is an oversimplification. "Time Warner would like to make it appear that way because they want to make it look like ABC is greedy," says ABC's Hoover. "The Disney Channel is on in 61 million homes. In 60 million of them, it is on basic. So all of these other cable companies have found a way to adjust to this apparently without a problem."

The big losers in all of this are, naturally, the viewers. A visit to the message boards at ABC.com found posts from both sides -- and very little good word for either.

"I admire Disney for not folding to Time Warner even though I hate not being able to tape my soaps while I am at work," read one, while another defended Time Warner's right to put its own networks first.

"Nobody complains when they go into Sears' appliance department and find the Sears Kenmore appliances right up front and other brands scattered around. It's the same thing. It's a business!"

More characteristic, though, was this message: "Man, I don't care who's pointing fingers at whom, just resolve this already. You have 3.5 million viewers without ABC and we have no control over this infantile behavior between two mega corps."

Time Warner Cable, for its part, has offered to reimburse customers who want to convert to rabbit ears in order to watch their favorite ABC programs. Some local systems may offer C-SPAN in lieu of ABC programming.

Just try telling your kids why they're watching Trent Lott instead of the Genie of the Lamp.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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