NEW YORK – Time Warner Cable Inc. customers from Portland, Maine, to
Pensacola, Fla., could lose access to one of their network TV stations
because of a contract dispute with Sinclair Broadcast Group.
The dust-up between Sinclair and Time Warner is one
of a growing number of disputes over the fees that cable providers pay
broadcast stations to include their signals in channel lineups. The last
high-profile dispute that caused a blackout came earlier this year when
Cablevision Systems Corp. customers went without Fox programming for 15
days — missing two World Series games.
In most cases, however, cable and broadcast companies
have been able to avoid blackouts, even if negotiations go down the
Broadcast companies used to allow cable providers to
carry their channels for free and made their money selling commercial
time. But competition with cable networks for ad dollars has
intensified, and the recession underscored how quickly ad spending can
fall off when businesses need to cut spending. Now broadcasters see
these fees from cable providers as a crucial, second revenue stream.
In the latest dispute, Sinclair is asking for more
cash for the right to carry signals from its stations, but Time Warner
Cable is resisting the increase.
If a deal isn't reached, 33 Sinclair stations in 21
markets — among them Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC affiliates — could go dark
for Time Warner customers after midnight Friday.
However, Fox owner News Corp. has agreed to provide
Time Warner with network programming in case a local station operator
withholds its signal. That resulted from an agreement a year ago between
the two companies to resolve a similar dispute over fees. So Time
Warner customers would still get shows such as "Glee," "House" and "The
Simpsons," even if they couldn't watch the local Fox newscast.
These disputes have been particularly rough on sports
fans. If Sinclair and Time Warner don't reach a deal by this weekend,
for instance, college football fans in Pensacola may not be able to
watch the ABC broadcast of the Florida Gators playing in the Outback
Sinclair, which is based in Hunt Valley, Md., said
Tuesday that Time Warner has not presented a counterproposal since
rejecting Sinclair's most recent offer. Time Warner says it is still
ready to negotiate.
Still, Sinclair doesn't have as much clout in these
negotiations as the big networks themselves, which have stations in
major markets such as New York and Los Angeles and are owned by media
conglomerates, which also operate cable networks. Sinclair's stations
are located in smaller cities, including San Antonio, Texas, Buffalo,
N.Y., and Pittsburgh.