NEW YORK -- The stretch run of ABC's 26 years of Triple Crown coverage could be off-limits for millions of viewers.
A dispute between the Walt Disney Co. and Time Warner Inc. over transmission rights left seven Disney-owned ABC stations off local cable systems as of Monday.
If the sides don't settle their differences by Saturday, 3.5 million cable viewers in seven markets, including New York City and Los Angeles, won't be able to see the Kentucky Derby unless they rig their TVs to get an ABC station the old-fashioned way -- through an antenna.
"It's something we have no control over," said Karl Schmitt, senior VP of Churchill Downs Inc., which owns the track and the Derby itself. "We're hopeful it all will be resolved before Saturday at 4:30, when the show goes on the air."
ABC's long association with thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown ends after this year's series, when its current contract expires. Last October, NBC outbid ABC and signed a five-year deal, worth a reported $51.5 million, to televise the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
ABC, led by commentator Jim McKay, has televised the Derby since 1975 and covered all three races since 1987.
The Preakness is May 20, the Belmont June 10.
Those affected by the Disney-Time Warner impasse could also miss out on NHL playoff games slated for ABC on coming weekends. The network, in the first season of a five-year, $600 million deal it and ESPN have with the league, is slated to air a second-round game -- from either the Colorado-Detroit or Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series -- Sunday.
The NHL, like Churchill Downs, has been in constant contact with ABC to stay abreast of developments.
"We're obviously watching the situation closely. We understand from ABC it's a very fluid situation. A week is a long time," said Bernadette Mansur, NHL group VP for communications.
The network's upcoming sports schedule also includes the final two rounds of the PGA Tour's Compaq Classic on Saturday and Sunday, the International Figure Skating Challenge on May 13, and Indy 500 time trials May 20-21.
The move comes during a sweeps period, when ratings are used to set local advertising rates. Sweeps began Thursday and end May 24.
"It could have a damaging effect on ABC Sports," said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and head of his own consulting firm.
Advertisers could ask ABC to compensate them for lost viewers.
About 1.5 million cable customers in New York were without ABC programming Monday. Other areas affected include Los Angeles; Houston; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Toledo, Ohio; Fresno, Calif.; and Philadelphia.
Time Warner and ABC have tried for months to reach a new national transmission deal.
Disney-ABC offered five deadline extensions after the original deal expired Dec. 31, 1999. The most recent deadline gave Disney-ABC the authority to withhold its programming from Time Warner cable systems if no deal was reached by 12:01 a.m. Monday.
But Disney said Monday it gave Time Warner permission to carry the seven stations through May 24.
ABC and other over-the-air networks have had the right to demand compensation from cable providers in exchange for their programming since Congress passed 1992's Cable TV Act.
ABC wants Time Warner to put some of its products on basic cable instead of pay channels. ABC also has asked Time Warner to pay rates for programming tantamount to those it pays its own networks, such as CNN.