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Comcast, Disney Ink Wide-Ranging Deal

Stations, cable networks and on-demand are covered

Walt Disney Co. has signed a 10-year distribution pact with cable operator Comcast that covers the ABC owned-and-operated stations, as well as Disney's cable networks and on-demand content. The media giant also has sold its 39.5% stake in E! Networks to Comcast for $1.23 billion.

The deal covers the 10 ABC O&Os as well as Disney Channel, ABC Family, Toon Disney, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPNEWS, ESPN HD and increased carriage of SOAPnet. Comcast has agreed to launch ESPN Deportes, a stand-alone Spanish-language sports network, and formalized its agreement with Disney over carriage of ESPN2 HD. Comcast is also now the sole owner of E! Networks, which includes E! Entertainment Television and Style Network.

A significant component of the deal, first reported in The Wall Street Journal, is on-demand content. For the first time, Comcast will have access to Disney movies for its On Demand video-on-demand (VOD) service, which will cost $3.99 for new releases and $2.99 for library content. Moreover, starting next fall, ABC will be making its primetime and news content available for free through On Demand. This is the first time the broadcast network has provided its content to cable VOD customers, although ABC has had success selling shows online at 99¢ apiece through Apple's iTunes service.

"This is one of the broadest distribution agreements in the history of our company," says Disney President/CEO Bob Iger.

Several ABC primetime series, including Lost and Desperate Housewives and two new shows, will be offered free by Comcast in ABC O&O markets the day after initial broadcast.

Under the agreement, Comcast also plans to add certain shows from Disney Channel, SOAPnet, Toon Disney and ESPN libraries to Comcast's VOD lineup in markets where those channels are offered. The two companies will also make promotional material from the Disney-ABC Television Group available on Comcast's Web portal, www.comcast.net.

The ABC shows will initially run with the same commercials as the broadcast version, says Disney spokesperson Katina Arnold, adding that ABC "has the option to experiment with new models for this format." That could theoretically consist of pre-roll or post-roll ads, such as the GMC ads that CBS is placing in its on-demand content for Comcast. Comcast is not yet testing dynamic ad-insertion, which in the future is expected to allow targeted and constantly updated ads to be placed alongside VOD content.

VOD movies will be available from Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone and Miramax.

NewsLab: More Ads Than Coverage

Talk about a landslide: Midwest TV-station evening and late newscasts averaged 1 minute and 43 seconds of campaign coverage versus 4½ minutes of paid political ads in the 30 days before the midterm elections.

That is according to a study by the University of Wisconsin's NewsLab for its Midwest News Index, an ongoing study of local TV news in Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin.

That election coverage was up "considerably" from the initial study of the same set of newscasts on 28 network affiliates for the previous 30 days (Sept. 7-Oct. 6), according to the study.

But the study also said that most of the coverage (68%) was devoted to so-called horse-race issues like polls and campaign strategies rather than to policy (17%).

And there was even some spillover of political advertising into the news hole, with more than 10% of the stories at least mentioning and some focusing on political ads.

The study was backed by media consolidation critic The Joyce Foundation, whose VP Larry Hansen says the findings are troubling.

He says it shows that most people were getting their campaign information from ads—many of them "outlandish and negative"—rather than from hard-news stories. "In the end," he says, "well-funded candidates and local broadcasters win while voters, most candidates and democracy lose."

The National Association of Broadcasters took aim at the announcement: "Once again, University of Wisconsin NewsLab researchers demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of how broadcasting works and how viewers get their news," says NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.

"Local stations air political coverage during many dayparts, and not just in the narrow time frame of weekday evening newscasts. By failing to acknowledge the totality of free airtime freely given by broadcasters—including morning news, noon news, weekend public-affairs—programming and televised debates," he says, "these researchers do a huge disservice to the academic community."—John Eggerton

Sesame Workshop Helps Military Families Cope

CPB, with help from Wal-Mart, is funding a Sesame Workshop special, When Parents Are Deployed, to help parents and caregivers deal with the effect of their military deployment to Iraq on children.

The half-hour show, which will premiere Dec. 27 at 9 p.m. on PBS hosted by Cuba Gooding Jr., is targeted at adults.

In announcing the new series, Sesame Workshop said that more than 700,000 kids will be separated from their mother or father over the holidays. The special will work in the storyline of the deployment of Muppet Elmo's father to Iraq with interviews with, and stories of, military families.

The special is an offshoot of the Workshop's partnership with Wal-Mart on an educational-outreach kit, Talk, Listen, Connect: Helping Families During Military Deployment, which was targeted at helping kids cope with the situation. The kits are downloadable at the Sesame Workshop Website. —John Eggerton

NBC Assuming New 'Identity'

When it comes to TV, game shows have still got game. NBC will trot out new entrant Identity for five nights Dec. 18-22. The show, from Ben Silverman's production company, Reveille, will be hosted by Penn Jillette of the popular offbeat comedy duo Penn & Teller.

NBC says the show, which will air each night at 8 p.m. ET, tasks a contestant with sizing up a group of strangers in an effort to try to match their identities. Top prize will be $500,000. —Ben Grossman

Verizon Raises Price of FiOS TV

Verizon has boosted the price of its FiOS TV system by $3.04 to $42.99 for new subscribers, while holding to the price of $39.95 for its current subs.

Verizon spokesman Cliff Lee says the price change, the first since the service launched in September 2005, reflects the additional value of almost 20 more channels.

The increase takes effect in Virginia on Jan. 14 and later in January for subscribers in New York, Texas, Massachusetts, California and Maryland.

There will also be some lesser increases of $1-$2 for premium channels like HBO and for some sports and movie services, plus a hike of a few pennies for video-on-demand.—John Eggerton

Corrections

Hilary Estey McLoughlin is president of Telepictures. She was incorrectly identified in "Syndicators Bet on Game and Court Shows" (11/20).

Steve Gahler is promoted to VP/station manager/director of sales, KSTW Seattle. The city was incorrectly identified in Fates (11/20).

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