Deadline near for Sinclair, Comcast

Cable customers wait to see if deal on programming costs can be struck by tomorrow

March 09, 2007|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,Sun reporter

Millions of cable customers nationwide, including many in the Baltimore region, are waiting to see if popular Fox shows such as American Idol remain on their cable systems as Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and Comcast Corp. approach tomorrow's deadline to reach a deal on programming costs.

Comcast said yesterday that discussions between the two parties remain "productive" and that they are working to reach a "fair agreement that would avoid any interruption in service for our customers."

Barry Faber, Sinclair's vice president and general counsel, could not be reached for comment yesterday, but he said last week that he was optimistic the two companies would strike a new deal before tomorrow.

At issue has been how much airing local programming is worth. Sinclair is aggressively seeking cash from cable operators for the right to retransmit its broadcast signals.

But Philadelphia-based Comcast maintains it will not pay cash for programming that is available for free over the airwaves - a position reiterated by the company's chief executive officer this week.

After Sinclair threatened to pull its programming off Comcast's cable system last week, the two parties agreed to extend the current contract until tomorrow.

The dispute between the two companies involves 30 network-affiliated stations - including Baltimore's WBFF-Fox 45 and WNUV-CW 54 - from cable systems that reach 3.4 million customers in 23 markets from Tampa, Fla., to Pittsburgh to Flint, Mich.

Without a deal, 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 Fox affiliate 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.

For decades, cable providers have picked up local broadcast signals without paying cash. In exchange, cable operators compensated broadcasters in other ways.

For instance, cable operators agreed to pay to carry NBC Universal's new channels such as MSNBC while retransmitting NBC stations for free.

Companies such as Sinclair typically receive advertising slots and better channel locations on cable systems for the free signals, or cable companies agree to buy advertising from broadcasters.

Comcast Chief Executive Officer Brian Roberts said this week at an annual Bear Stearns Media Conference in Florida that the relationship between broadcasters and cable providers over so-called retransmission consent rights has not changed.

"We're not interested and will not pay cash" for retransmission rights, Roberts said. "We are going to help market each other's businesses, and there's going to be a win-win outcome that will not require us to raise consumers' rates or charge the customer for free TV. That line is drawn, that's not changing."

In most cases, such fights end amicably without blackouts. But a few broadcasters, including Sinclair, recently have pulled programming from some cable systems during negotiations.

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