updated 3/11/2004 8:21:20 AM ET 2004-03-11T13:21:20

Ending a fee dispute that left millions of DISH satellite television customers without several popular channels, EchoStar Communications Corp. agreed early Thursday on a new contract with CBS parent Viacom Inc.

EchoStar pulled the plug on Viacom programming Tuesday, leaving up to 9 million DISH Network viewers nationwide without Viacom channels including MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, BET and Nickelodeon.

The dispute also left as many as 2 million DISH viewers without CBS shows when EchoStar pulled the network's programming in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Miami, Boston, Denver, Minneapolis and Dallas.

DISH subscribers in those cities were threatened with the loss of the upcoming NCAA men's basketball tournament, which begins March 18 on CBS.

Customers turning to the disrupted channels instead saw a message accusing Viacom of seeking an unreasonable rate increase that would result in higher monthly satellite bills for EchoStar customers.

"We understand that this has been a difficult few days for our customers, and we thank them for all the encouragement they have given us throughout," EchoStar chairman and CEO Charles Ergen said in a joint statement with Viacom. "We also look forward to a long relationship with Viacom in which we can provide their quality channels to our viewers."

In the statement, Viacom president Mel Karmazin apologized for the service disruption and thanked viewers "for their patience and support."

The blackout was the largest disruption since 2000, when a similar dispute between Time Warner cable and ABC interrupted service to 3.5 million cable customers.

MTV spokeswoman Jeanine Smartt, a spokeswoman for MTV, cited customer displeasure as a factor in the renewed negotiations that led to a deal.

"Really, it was the outcry from the viewers that truly, I think, brought EchoStar back to the negotiating table," Smartt said. "They called us by the thousands and thousands."

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, with the latest court order expiring late Monday.

EchoStar said Viacom illegally tried to force it to carry channels at unfair prices in exchange for the right to also carry 18 CBS-owned stations in 16 markets.

It said New York-based Viacom sought rate increases up to 40 percent over the length of the contract, which would total potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.

Viacom officials said EchoStar was fighting over what amounted to 6 cents more per customer per month.

Besides CBS, media conglomerate Viacom also owns MTV and the Paramount movie studio.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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