SpongeBob SquarePants fans may be in for a rough morning.
Early today, 13-million subscribers were to lose Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central and 16 other channels if a deal between media giant Viacom Inc. and Time Warner Cable Inc., which is affiliated with Bright House Networks, could not be worked out.
The impasse means SpongeBob and other popular shows like Jon Stewart's The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert's The Colbert Report would be cut off for Bright House customers.
"Negotiations are ongoing," said Joe Durkin, a spokesman for Bright House Networks. "But Viacom and Viacom alone is making the decision about whether to pull their signal off the air."
Viacom has asked for fee increases of between 22 and 36 percent per channel, or a total of $39-million more, an amount that could increase customers' cable bills, said a Time Warner Cable spokesman.
Viacom took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times and elsewhere showing Dora the Explorer, a popular cartoon character, in tears. The ad told viewers that Time Warner Cable planned to yank Dora from the air.
"Why is Dora crying?" the ad asks. "Time Warner Cable is taking Dora off the air tonight!" The ad urges viewers to call Time Warner Cable and demand that their favorite shows remain on the air.
Durkin said Bright House has been telling angry viewers that Viacom is to blame. Negotiations like these go on all the time. If an agreement cannot be reached by the time a contract expires, there's typically an extension so programming can continue during negotiations. Viacom, though, is refusing to continue programming, Durkin said.
Bright House, which serves well over 1-million people in a seven-county area from Manatee County north to Citrus County, was looking for alternate programming that will replace the lost programs from Viacom, Durkin said.
He disputed Viacom's assertion that the increase in rates would cost customers less than a penny a day. "If it was that minor, as they're portraying, then it wouldn't have been an issue. The deal would have been done."
Viacom said the increases would cost an extra 23 cents a month per subscriber. It said that Americans spend a fifth of their TV time watching Viacom shows, but its fees make up less than 2.5 percent of the Time Warner cable bill.
"We make this request because Time Warner Cable has so greatly undervalued our channels for so long," Viacom said.
"Ultimately, however, if Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, MTV and the rest of our programming is discontinued — over less than a penny per day — we believe viewers will see this behavior by their cable company as outrageous," Viacom said.
If the shows go dark, Time Warner Cable planned to send people to the Internet to catch episodes. Dudley said the cable operator also will make available a video teaching people how to hook their computers up to the TV to watch online shows — a tactic it used during a contract dispute with broadcaster LIN TV in October.
Viacom shares rose 45 cents, or 2.3 percent, to $19.71 in late morning trading Wednesday. Time Warner Cable shares lost 39 cents, or 1.8 percent, to $21.37.
Times staff writer Asjylyn Loder contributed to this report.