By Ronald Grover and Liana B. Baker
LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK, March 13 (Reuters) - Media companies plan to press Comcast Corp for higher fees in the coming year, seeing an opportunity to squeeze better terms from the U.S. cable company as regulators review its planned takeover of Time Warner Cable Inc.
Comcast and Time Warner Cable paid nearly $14 billion to content companies last year for rights to distribute their films, television shows and sporting events.
Broadcasters and cable television networks have "assignment clauses" in their contracts with Time Warner Cable that require the networks to sign off before Comcast can merge the two cable operators' agreements, according to people who have negotiated agreements in the past.
Media executives say most programmers will push for higher rates in return for expanding their deals to cover digital distribution of their content. They declined to give specifics, citing confidential contracts.
"Media companies selling programming can be expected to leverage the policy and politics surrounding the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger to extract sizeable and unusual concessions," said Jimmy Schaeffler, chairman of pay TV consultant firm The Carmel Group.
Comcast is expected in March to formally request a Federal Communications Commission review of the $45.2 billion Time Warner Cable deal. The combined company will control almost 30 percent of the U.S. pay television video market and about a third of the high-speed Internet market.
While content providers are broadly concerned about the long-term negotiating clout of the new company, many of them are looking for immediate ways to benefit from the merger, according to media executives who requested anonymity because their negotiations with Comcast will be private.
Media companies see increased value for their content following a recent deal by satellite operator Dish Network Corp to pay Walt Disney Co for the rights to stream ESPN, ABC and other programs over the Internet.
Analysts say Disney likely pocketed higher subscriber fees from Dish for channels such as ESPN and Disney Channel. In 2013, ESPN was paid an industry average fee of $5.54 per subscriber per month while Disney Channel received $1.15 per subscriber per month, according to SNL Kagan.
CBS Corp CEO Leslie Moonves hinted at an investor conference this week that he would push for better terms from Comcast.
"There's going to be a lot of discussions going on about how you get those two contracts together," he said, referring to the melding of Comcast and Time Warner Cable's licensing agreements.
"There are certain things that we want to stay out of that deal and there are certain things probably that Comcast doesn't want," Moonves said.
Comcast currently pays the industry's lowest rates because of its size. Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus has dismissed the notion that the merged company will bully programmers.
"I just find that whole line of concern to be totally ironic," Marcus said on Wednesday, "given the experience that we have all had over the last dozen years or so where programming costs have risen at a level that far exceeds the price that customers will actually bear."
Time Warner Cable's programming costs have increased in the last five years by 42 percent, from $23.60 a subscriber in 2008 to $33.62 a subscriber in 2013, according to financial filings. Its overall programming costs will increase to $5.2 billion in 2014, an 8.3 bump percent from 2013.
Some programmers are looking at adding digital rights to their contracts with Comcast to push for better terms. The model is Disney's long-term deal with Comcast in 2012 that included added payments for WatchESPN and WatchDisneyChannel apps and other digital content.
Since then, Disney announced a video streaming agreement with Dish and is negotiating a similar one with DirecTV, under which the satellite provider would pay more for the rights to use ESPN, the Disney Channel and content from its ABC stations in an Internet-delivered video service.
Media executives say most of their contracts are outdated and they see an opening as Comcast and other cable operators beef up their digital and on-demand offerings to compete against the likes of Netflix Inc.
CBS signed a 10-year agreement with Comcast in 2010, that "greatly expanded on-demand access" to its CBS and Showtime programming, according to a press release at the time.
But that deal does not give Comcast the ability to stream video online or to offer video outside the home, and limits the amount of video on demand, said a person with knowledge of the arrangement.
A spokesman for CBS declined to comment. A Comcast spokeswoman had no immediate comment.
Analysts say Comcast could eventually institute "usage based pricing" to charge its subscribers for the broadband they use. Content owners want to make sure they are not left out of such arrangements, which they fear could put their own direct-to-consumer apps at a disadvantage.
"If I was a media company, I'd be down there with Comcast every few days asking for what I want," said Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffettNathanson Research. "It's time to haggle."