In a last-minute deal, Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. said late yesterday that it has agreed in principle with Comcast Corp. to a deal that will enable cable subscribers in Baltimore City and County to watch tomorrow's Super Bowl in vivid, precise, high-definition television.
Until last night's agreement, football fans faced the prospect that a fee dispute could cause Fox Baltimore affiliate WBFF/Channel 45 to withhold the high-definition version of its Super Bowl signal from Comcast's cable system.
Hunt Valley-based Sinclair, which owns WBFF, wanted to charge Comcast for the privilege of carrying the digital, high-definition signal. Comcast, based in Philadelphia and the nation's largest cable provider, was resistant to the fee of 50 cents per subscriber per month that Sinclair proposed.
"Customers now across the entire Baltimore metropolitan area will be able to watch the Super Bowl in high-definition television," said Comcast spokeswoman Kirstie Durr.
At least one high-definition TV owner exulted over the truce.
"I figured they'd probably fight it out over time but I'd miss this Super Bowl," said Charley Adams, 24, an electrical engineer from Middle River. "I can't believe they came to a deal this fast."
The companies said they will finalize the agreement after the Super Bowl. Neither side would discuss details, including whether Comcast had agreed to pay a fee. Sinclair, one of the largest independent owners of television stations in the country, said it needed to charge the fee to pay for the cost of upgrading its stations for digital transmission.
"Our policy requiring compensation in some form has not changed," said Barry Faber, Sinclair vice president and general counsel.
Baltimore and Baltimore County have nearly 500,000 cable subscribers. Fewer than 5,000 have high-definition service, but many of them had been counting on a super-clear Super Bowl on their screens.
Sinclair has 20 Fox affiliates across the country, including eight in markets where Comcast is the cable provider. Six of those Comcast markets - Baltimore; Pittsburgh; Nashville, Tenn.; Richmond, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; and Paducah, Ky. - will get high definition via cable under the agreement. The other two markets weren't ready for digital viewing, Faber said.
Sinclair has yet to come to an agreement in markets where Comcast isn't the cable carrier.
"The reason we did a deal with Comcast and didn't with other cable operators was we believe we've reached the framework for a long-term deal," said Faber.
WBFF will remain in high definition even after tomorrow's game between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots while Comcast and Sinclair work on the final agreement, the companies said.