NEW YORK (AP) â€” Time Warner agreed today to return ABC to its cable systems, at least temporarily bringing ``Good Morning America'' and ``Who Wants to be a Millionaire'' back to the 3.5 million customers who had the channel blacked out because of a corporate dispute.
The cable company agreed, in effect, to an extension to keep negotiating with the Walt Disney Co., ABC's corporate parent, until July 15.
On the company's Manhattan system, an ABC network soap opera quickly returned to the cable channel 7.
ABC issued a statement saying it was ``gratified that Time Warner is now making the viewers their first priority.''
``We are broadcasters and until yesterday had provided uninterrupted service to all viewers for 47 years. Wanting to restore service as quickly as possible to those who depend on us, we, too, are willing to compromise,'' ABC said.
On Monday, the first day of the ``Millionaire'' show's series of celebrity guest editions, Time Warner customers in New York hoping to see host Regis Philbin found a message saying, ``Disney has taken ABC away from you.''
The lost viewers didn't put much of a dent in the ``Millionaire'' juggernaut Monday, though. The celebrity version of the show drew an estimated 35 million viewers nationally, based on overnight ratings that were more than double any other show on the air, said Marc Berman, an analyst for Mediaweek.com.
An estimated 500,000 to 1 million more viewers would have probably watched if they hadn't been shut out by the dispute, he said. The show has averaged 28.4 million viewers for its regular editions this year, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The Walt Disney Co., ABC's corporate parent, is fighting over how much money Time Warner must compensate Disney for the right to carry some of its cable channels. The blackout comes during one of the key ``sweeps'' periods for ratings.
The affected customers were in seven markets served by ABC-owned television stations. About 1.5 million were in the New York City area, 665,000 in Houston and 440,000 in Raleigh-Durham, N.C. Smaller numbers of customers in the Los Angeles; Philadelphia; Toledo, Ohio; and Fresno, Calif.
The dispute has been marked by unusually bitter rhetoric, and Time Warner had offered to reimburse customers for the cost of switching to an antenna for ABC shows. Disney was considering giving a rebate to customers who get a satellite dish.
The blackout was particularly ill-timed for ABC, America's top-rated broadcaster. In addition to the ``Millionaire'' celebrity week, many viewers who saw the opening night of the miniseries ``Arabian Nights'' on Sunday couldn't see its conclusion Monday.
If the temporary reprieve hadn't been announced, customers could have missed the Kentucky Derby, the Daytime Emmy Awards and virtually all of the season finales of its regular series.
In Raleigh, N.C., Dave and Connie Westfall went to a Radio Shack on Monday to buy a rabbit-ear antenna set.
``I'm furious,'' Connie Westfall said. ``I can't believe it. But now that I have this, we can watch Regis.''
Disney appealed for help from the Federal Communications Commission on Monday. The commission had asked Time Warner to respond to the petition filed by ABC by the end of the day today so that the agency could conduct an expedited review of the matter.
Each side said FCC law was on its side: Time Warner said it was against the law to carry a station without a transmission deal while ABC said a cable operator cannot stop airing a broadcast station during a sweeps period.
Disney had offered a series of deadline extensions after the original national transmission deal expired Dec. 31. The most recent deadline, offered in March, expired at 12:01 a.m. Monday.
Time Warner said Disney's demands to carry the Disney Channel and separate cartoon and soap opera networks on its system would have added $300 million in costs to its customers; Disney said it had offered a fair market price.
``It's abundantly clear to anybody who understands the real situation â€” this is about extorting money from cable customers,'' said Michael Luftman, Time Warner spokesman.
Preston Padden, executive vice president of governmental relations at Disney, said it was a ``damnable lie'' to blame Disney for pulling the plug.
Since the blackout affected less than 4 percent of the nation's 100 million TV homes, the dispute isn't likely to shake ABC's hold on the top spot in the season's ratings, said Jon Mandel, an analyst for Grey Advertising. But advertisers are expected to demand ABC compensate them for the lost customers.
It's not the first time such a dispute has deprived cable customers of their favorite stations, said Simon Applebaum, senior editor of Cablevision magazine. Earlier this year, a fight left some 400,000 Cox Communications customers in the Washington, D.C., area without the Fox network for a week.
On the Net: