700 Club in Middle of DirecTV-Family Dispute

In an effort to appease viewers of The 700 Club, DirecTV Inc. said it would offer the Rev. Pat Robertson's long-running televangelism show free of charge if it cannot reach a carriage agreement with ABC Family.

But Robertson last week rebuked the offer, as no signs of a deal between ABC and DirecTV were imminent at press time. ABC Cable Group officials shot back at DirecTV, saying the dispute revolves more around retransmission-consent deals than ABC Family licensing fees.

DirecTV is threatening to drop ABC Family, which carries the 700 Club, by March 31 after refusing to pay what it says is a 35 percent rate fee increase proposed by the network. Sources peg ABC Family's monthly license fee at around 18 cents.

Viewers of The 700 Club, which airs on ABC Family three times a day, bombarded DirecTV with calls two weeks after Robertson listed DirecTV president Roxanne Austin's office phone number on the show.

Robertson's organization, the Christian Broadcasting Network, once owned ABC Family; the show airs on the channel under contractual obligations related to its sale.

Trying to stem the tide of calls, DirecTV sent a letter to CBN president Michael Little touting the offer and expressing its "dismay" that ABC Family "dragged" the 700 Club into the carriage battle, company senior vice president of programming acquisitions Michael Thornton said.

"We certainly don't want to disrupt our collective 700 Club viewers — our beef is not with The 700 Club, but with [ABC Cable Group and ABC Family parent The Walt] Disney [Co.]," Thornton said.

Robertson nixed the idea, saying being an "orphan" on DirecTV without knowing which programs would precede or follow 700 Club
"is not very appealing." He also said he's hopeful that ABC Family and DirecTV would come to an amicable solution.

ABC Cable Group issued a release stating that making 700 Club
available on another channel "does not address" the overall issue of DirecTV's fundamental problem with Disney-owned networks and retransmission-consent issues.

"DirecTV has raised a range of issues between our companies, including retransmission consent for ABC [owned-and-operated] local stations, which expires for DirecTV at the end of the year," said the statement. "We have made reasonable offers to resolve our issues, while DirecTV chooses to hold ABC Family hostage in an attempt to extort unrelated concessions from our company."

ABC Family, which has rolled out such reality fare as My Life As a Sitcom and The Last Resort, has been struggling in the ratings. Through February, it averaged a 0.6 household rating, down 25 percent from the same period in 2002, according to Nielsen Media Research data.