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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) -- Satellite television provider EchoStar Communications Corp. pulled the plug on MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and local CBS affiliates in Salt Lake City and other markets early Tuesday in a contract dispute with Viacom Inc. over the price of programming.
An estimated 1.6 million customers on EchoStar's DISH Network across the nation were affected, a move that could threaten their ability to watch, among other things, the March Madness college basketball tournament.
In place of Viacom programming, some customers in the Denver area saw a message from EchoStar saying the multimedia giant was asking an unreasonable amount for its programming.
A statement from Viacom after the 3 a.m. EST contract deadline passed urged EchoStar customers to stop subscribing to the DISH Network.
"Current EchoStar-DISH Network subscribers who would like to continue receiving BET, CBS, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, and all our other channels can easily switch," said a statement from spokeswoman Susan Duffy after the channels were turned off.
She said Viacom was "dismayed and disappointed" by the DISH Network decision, and said the company "refused to entertain a reasonable proposal or to negotiate in earnest."
"We have solid business partnerships with virtually every other satellite and cable TV operator -- except for EchoStar-DISH Network," the statement said.
DISH also posted an announcement about the cancellation on its Web site, along with a plea for consumers to call CBS.
"DISH Network will always have a place for CBS and we're willing to pay for retransmission rights, but Viacom is holding the public airwaves hostage, trying to extract concessions and higher rates on programming unrelated to CBS," EchoStar chairman Charles Ergen said in a statement released as the deadline for the cancellation approached.
Echostar said Viacom had sought rate increases up to 40 percent over the length of the contract, which "potentially equates to hundreds of millions of dollars" in payments, Ergen said.
EchoStar said it would provide $1 monthly credits to customers who lose CBS programming, and another $1 for those who subscribe to additional Viacom channels.
But Viacom's statement it couldn't understand EchoStar's position.
"They recently hiked their subscribers' bills by as much as $3 a month. Yet they are unwilling to consider paying an additional six cents a month per subscriber for the right to carry our channels," the company said.
DISH customers in Salt Lake City and markets in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Detroit, Minneapolis, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Denver, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Green Bay, Wis., and Austin, Texas, lost their local CBS affiliate programs as well.
Viacom and EchoStar began sparring after a contract for the DISH Network to broadcast Viacom channels expired Dec. 31.
The contract was extended at least three times, voluntarily and by court orders. The latest court order for the programming to continue expired at the overnight deadline.
In January, EchoStar filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco alleging Viacom was illegally trying to force EchoStar to carry Viacom-owned MTV, Spike and other cable channels at unfair prices in exchange for the right to carry 18 CBS-owned stations in 16 media markets.
Ergen had said previously he would rather drop CBS than submit to Viacom's demands.
Englewood, Colo.-based EchoStar delivers hundreds of channels to 9 million subscribers.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)