Cable fracas won't bar fans from seeing bowl games

Updated: December 31, 2010, 7:05 PM ET
Associated Press

Time Warner Cable Inc. vowed Friday to provide its cable customers with network TV stations from other cities if it loses the rights to carry local stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. past a midnight Friday deadline for a new contract.

The arrangement means that viewers should get access to major network programming -- including Saturday's Outback Bowl game on ABC between the Florida Gators and the Penn State Nittany Lions -- if Sinclair pulls its signals once the deadline passed. Viewers would lose local programs, such as the local news. Syndicated shows such as "Seinfeld" could move to a different time.

The tactic could undercut local broadcast companies in these types of negotiations in the future.

Hours before the deadline, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks still had no deal to carry Sinclair stations starting Saturday. The dispute had threatened to prevent cable customers in Sinclair markets around the country from seeing the Outback Bowl. Time Warner has about 4 million customers who get local broadcast stations owned by Sinclair, and Bright House has a smaller but unknown number.

Time Warner spokeswoman Maureen Huff said the companies were still negotiating Friday, but that the cable company would import broadcast signals from other cities to replace Sinclair stations so local customers wouldn't miss their network programming from NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox.

Huff said even if the dispute with Sinclair drags on, Time Warner customers in Sinclair cities would still see all NFL playoff games, the Super Bowl and "most if not all" would see the full assortment of college football bowls. Time Warner has not said which stations it will borrow signals from.

Time Warner has been doing that in upstate New York because of a similar dispute with Smith Media. Viewers get the network evening shows but see out-of-market local newscasts and syndicated fare.

Bright House later said it, too, would carry feeds from other cities if the dispute with Sinclair remained unresolved.

The cable TV companies' end run around Sinclair is the latest twist in a long-running struggle between TV broadcasters and the cable and satellite operators that carry their signals into customers' homes.

Bound by existing contract terms with Sinclair, Time Warner can only replace Sinclair stations with broadcast signals from other cities until late February. A separate deal with Fox owner News Corp. would allow Time Warner to carry that network for longer.

But it would be a major risk for Sinclair to pull its signals for that long. TV stations promise local advertisers that their commercials will reach a certain size audience, and that audience will be diminished without Time Warner and Bright House customers. In the meantime, Sinclair's only bargaining chip will be access to locally produced news and other programming.

Sinclair spokesman Barry Faber said Time Warner's approach will "simply give their customers ample time" to find a different pay TV provider, such as satellite.

Disputes between broadcasters and the cable and satellite operators are cropping up more often.

Broadcast companies used to let cable providers carry their channels for free while making their money selling advertising time. But the recession caused some advertisers to cut spending, and the broadcasters are trying to charge cable operators higher fees to carry their programming.

In some cases, cable companies have resisted the broadcasters' demands, leaving TV viewers caught in the crossfire. One of the longest blackouts occurred in 2005, when about 75,000 cable customers in Texas, Missouri and Louisiana went without local NBC and ABC affiliate programming for nearly the entire year because of an impasse between the stations' owner, Nexstar Broadcasting Group Inc., and cable systems.

Broadcasters had been long believed to hold the upper hand in negotiating fees with cable and satellite providers because blacked-out customers usually called the cable company to complain. The cable and satellite operators have appealed for help from federal regulators.

In October, Cablevision Systems Corp. asked the Federal Communications Commission to force Fox stations to keep providing programming while Cablevision sought arbitration to settle a dispute over fees. The FCC declined to get involved, and Cablevision wound up swallowing Fox's terms, after its customers lost Fox programs for two weeks, including two World Series games.

But Time Warner's tactics could give cable providers more clout and even the upper hand.

For broadcasters such as Sinclair, the stakes are big. More advertising dollars are shifting to the Web and the growing number of cable networks means increasing competition for the money that is still going into TV. So local stations see fees from Time Warner and other pay TV providers as a crucial second source of income.

Without an agreement, Hunt Valley, Md.-based Sinclair planned to pull its signals from Time Warner and Bright House cable systems. Sinclair owns 33 stations carried by Time Warner around the country, and others in the South -- though not many network affiliates -- carried on Bright House.

Bright House spokeswoman Kimberly Maki said the company arranged to provide the feed from another ABC station to customers in the Florida Panhandle so they won't miss Saturday's Outback Bowl.

"We've got it covered," she said. Most of the Sinclair stations carried on Bright House systems are on minor networks, and Maki held out hope the company could get an extension from Sinclair for those stations while negotiations continue.

Before Time Warner and Bright House said they would turn to signals from other cities, some Florida football fans were making backup plans in case they couldn't watch their favorite team at home. In Cantonment, Fla., Jennifer Stokes adorned her SUV with a Florida Gators front license plate. The Bright House subscriber said she and her family and friends refuse to miss the Outback Bowl.

"We will just go somewhere else and watch it," she said. "It's a big deal."

Time Warner shares fell 8 cents to close Friday at $66.03, while Sinclair shares added 5 cents to $8.18.

---

AP Writer Melissa Nelson in Cantonment, Fla., contributed to this report.


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index