Sinclair Broadcast Group, the Hunt Valley broadcaster that is one of the nation's largest independent owners of television stations, has settled a long-running dispute with Comcast Corp. that will allow viewers of Sinclair stations to watch programs in high-definition.
The disagreement reached a critical point in January when Comcast subscribers in Baltimore and in Baltimore County complained that they wouldn't be able to watch the Super Bowl in high-definition because Sinclair wouldn't allow the cable company to carry the digital signal for its Fox affiliate.
Sinclair wanted to charge the cable provider to carry its digital signal. Comcast refused to pay.
Two days before the Super Bowl, the sides reached an agreement in principle that allowed viewers to see the game in high-definition, a technology that provides a much clearer picture than regular television.
That short-term solution has become a long-term agreement, Sinclair announced yesterday.
Disputes between cable companies and broadcasters over transmission fees are not uncommon, although broadcasters risk losing advertising revenue if they seek to withhold signals from cable companies. And broadcasters rarely win such disputes.
Twenty Sinclair markets will be affected by the agreement with Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, although few viewers have the high-definition sets. Fewer than 5,000 of the nearly 500,000 cable subscribers in Baltimore and Baltimore County have HDTV.
Neither company would reveal details of the agreement, including whether Comcast agreed to pay the monthly fee of 50 cents per subscriber per month that Sinclair wanted.
"It has always been our position that we have to feel as if we receive something in exchange," said Barry Faber, Sinclair's general counsel and vice president. "And that is true in this case."
Faber said Sinclair got broad multicasting rights - carriage of multiple digital signals - under the deal with Comcast. That would allow Sinclair to create an all-news channel, a weather channel or other types of programmed station.
Sinclair's Fox affiliate in Baltimore, WBFF/Channel 45, was to begin airing in high-definition digital last evening, said Kirstie Durr, a spokeswoman for Comcast. Its WNUV/Channel 54 in Baltimore is expected to air in high-definition this year, as are the company's ABC, CBS, NBC, WB and UPN stations across the country, Sinclair said.
"After working through the specifics of the agreement, we think everything came to terms from both sides and we were able to sign the deal," Durr said.
Sinclair, whose 62 stations reach nearly a quarter of the nation's television viewers, hopes that the agreement with Comcast will help as it negotiates with other cable companies about carrying its digital signal, officials said.
The company has said it needs to charge a fee to pay for the cost of upgrading its stations for digital programming. Broadcasters also argue that cable companies make money off HDTV by charging viewers extra for the digital cable they need to watch it.
Cable providers counter that broadcasters didn't have to pay for the added spectrum rights from the government to create digital signals and that they are asking cable companies to pay for programming that is free to viewers.
"It should be helpful in that it shows we are willing to agree to something in which the largest cable company in the country is also willing to agree with," Faber said. "If this is palpable to Comcast, it should also be palpable to Time Warner, Cox or any of the other cable companies."