Sinclair, Comcast continue talks as millions face cutoff of TV fare

Dispute involves fees that the cable giant would pay for broadcast programs

March 01, 2007|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,Sun reporter

Talks continued last night between Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and Comcast Corp. to ensure that popular network programs such as American Idol remain on the air for nearly 4 million cable customers nationwide, including many in the Baltimore region, Comcast executives said.

Sinclair threatened to cut off its programming to Comcast systems as early as 2 a.m. today if a deal was not reached over retransmission fees. A contract between both companies was set to expire today.

Without an agreement or an extension, the Hunt Valley broadcast company could order Comcast to remove 30 network-affiliated stations - including Baltimore's WBFF-Fox 45 and WNUV-CW 54 - from cable systems that reach 3.8 million customers in 23 markets from Tampa, Fla., to Pittsburgh to Flint, Mich.

Other areas with Sinclair-owned stations affected include Nashville, Tenn.; Richmond, Va.; Springfield, Mass.; Charleston, S.C.;and Tallahassee, Fla. Most stations affected are Fox affiliates.

If a deal was not reached, Comcast customers in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Carroll County would be without Fox network shows such as 24 on their cable systems. The network would be available free over the airwaves, but customers would need antennas to pick up those signals.

Customers in Harford, Anne Arundel and Howard counties would lose the Baltimore-affiliate of Fox on their cable systems, but they also receive Washington's Fox station. That station, which Sinclair does not own, would not be affected by a cable cutoff, meaning customers there would still be able to watch network programming.

All Comcast customers in the Baltimore area would lose the CW network.

Sinclair, one of the largest owners of television stations in the country, wants Comcast to pay to carry its programming on its systems.

Comcast, the largest cable operator in the nation, has refused, saying its customers should not have to pay for content that is available for free over the airwaves.

Comcast began notifying customers of the potential interruption in January. They also placed advertisements in newspapers and mailed notices - proclaiming "You won't be `out-foxed' by Sinclair Broadcasting!" - to their subscribers.

Sinclair executives did not return telephone calls yesterday.

In several markets, a Comcast competitor is taking advantage of the dispute between Sinclair and the cable operator.

Dish Network has been running print advertisements in Pittsburgh, Nashville, Charleston and Richmond, telling customers that they have another television alternative in satellite, said spokeswoman Cory Vasquez.

The satellite company said it was too early to say if it succeeded in snaring new customers because of the dispute.

The battle between broadcasters and cable operators over how much local programming is worth has been brewing for decades.

Only recently has the fight picked up momentum on the side of station owners like Sinclair. Cable operators face growing competition not only from satellite providers but also from telephone companies delivering television signals - both of which pay broadcasters for the local signals.

Sinclair and other broadcasters have been leading a charge to demand cash for retransmission by cable operators.

In most cases, such fights end amicably without blackouts. But a few broadcasters most recently have pulled programming from cable.

In January, Sinclair ordered a New York cable operator to stop carrying more than 20 stations Sinclair owns on Mediacom Communications Corp.'s cable system when financial talks between the two sides failed. The nearly four-week stalemate left 700,000 subscribers in markets such as Des Moines, Iowa, without shows such as Desperate Housewives.

The two sides reached an agreement last month. Mediacom did not disclose a price but said it is paying to carry Sinclair's stations for the first time.

"Sinclair has a lot at stake [with Comcast], and so they are no doubt deadly serious about this negotiation," said Craig Moffett, a senior analyst of U.S. cable and satellite broadcasting at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "They don't want to see channels pulled off Comcast more than anyone else."

Sinclair struck a deal with Time Warner Cable in January, allowing the nation's second-largest cable operator to carry analog and digital signals of Sinclair's 35 stations in 22 markets, including Buffalo, N.Y.

Financial terms were not disclosed but analysts say Sinclair received some cash as part of the deal.

hanah.cho@baltsun.com

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