Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group and Comcast Corp. are in negotiations involving fees that could affect whether millions of cable viewers can watch popular shows such as American Idol, 24 and America's Top Model on their cable systems.
The two sides have until March 10 to reach an agreement.
Here is a look at some of the issues:
What is at the heart of the dispute?
Sinclair wants Comcast to pay retransmission fees to carry its programming on the cable system. Comcast has refused, saying its customers should not have to pay for content that is available for free over the airwaves.
How many consumers are affected and in what markets?
Sinclair could order Comcast to pull 30 network-affiliated stations, including WBFF-Fox 45 and WNUV-CW 54 in Baltimore. The affected cable systems reach 3.4 million customers in 23 markets from Tampa, Fla., to Pittsburgh to Flint, Mich.
Would every Comcast customer in the Baltimore area lose Fox and CW?
Comcast customers in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Carroll counties would be without a Fox affiliate. Customers in Harford, Anne Arundel and Howard counties would lose the Baltimore affiliate of Fox on their cable systems, but they also receive the Washington Fox station, which would not be affected by a cutoff.
Cecil County customers also would lose the Baltimore Fox affiliate, but they can get the Philadelphia Fox station. All customers in the Baltimore area would lose the CW network.
What kind of leverage does Sinclair have in the talks?
It recently won similar disputes with other cable companies, and it controls popular programming. The conflict could prompt Comcast subscribers who fear missing such programming to shop for service from a competitor, including satellite providers and Verizon's new video service, FiOS, in some parts of the Baltimore region.
What kind of leverage does Comcast have in the talks?
With 24 million subscribers nationwide, the sheer size of Comcast gives it power in the negotiations. Pulling Sinclair stations from Comcast likely would cost Sinclair advertising revenue, because fewer viewers would see its programming.
How have similar negotiations turned out?
The dispute between cable companies and broadcasters has been simmering for decades but recently intensified. Broadcasters are insisting on payments, while cable providers typically have never paid for such content in the past. In most cases, the fights end with no blackouts.
But in January, Sinclair ordered New York cable operator Mediacom Communications Corp. to stop carrying more than 20 stations after financial negotiations failed. The stations were off the air almost four weeks and left 700,000 subscribers in markets including Des Moines, Iowa, without programming such as The Simpsons. Mediacom agreed last month to pay Sinclair a fee for the first time.
CBS recently announced that nine smaller cable companies agreed to pay the network to carry its programs.
How would you watch American Idol and other popular shows if the stations were removed from your cable system?
The networks would still be available for free over the airwaves; customers would need antennas to pick up the signals.
Why are these negotiations being watched so closely across the broadcast and cable industries?
Because Comcast is the nation's largest cable provider, the outcome could set a precedent for whether other cable companies would have to pay broadcasters retransmission fees.
Andrea K. Walker