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Disputes between Sinclair, Hearst, could mean blackouts for some TV viewers

Come Jan. 1, fans of WBAL-TV who watch via satellite provider DirecTV could find themselves without the station in the latest series of spats over fees that have also embroiled Time Warner Cable Systems and Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Sinclair said on Tuesday that its latest offer to Time Warner Cable had been rejected without a counterproposal, opening the door to the possibility that 33 of its television stations would be unavailable to about 8.5 million customers. Sinclair operates Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC affiliates in the 21 markets that would be affected by the expiring carriage contract. Time Warner Cable, which does not operate in Maryland, has 14.4 million customers in 28 states and is the second-largest cable operator in the U.S.

In Baltimore, Sinclair owns and operates Fox affiliate WBFF and The CW affiliate WNUV.

Broadcast companies used to allow cable providers to carry their signals for free and made their money selling commercial time. But competition with cable networks for ad dollars has intensified, and the recession underscored how quickly ad spending can fall off when businesses need to cut spending. Now broadcasters see carriage fees from cable providers as a crucial revenue stream.

Sinclair said it had offered Time Warner a deal that included a monthly per-station increase that averaged 10 cents per subscriber. Time Warner also reportedly declined an offer to have the matter heard in binding arbitration.

“Time Warner Cable has rejected that offer and refused to provide a financial counter-proposal, effectively ending negotiations,” Sinclair said in a statement. “As a result, Sinclair television stations will no longer be carried on Time Warner Cable systems after midnight on Dec. 31, 2010.”

Sinclair resolved a separate carriage dispute last week with cable provider Mediacom Communications. The companies entered into a two-year retransmission consent agreement for the continued carriage of the signals of 22 television stations owned and/or operated by Sinclair in 16 markets.

The last high-profile dispute that caused a blackout came this year when Cablevision Systems Corp. customers went without Fox programming for 15 days — missing two World Series games. If a deal is not reached between Time Warner and Sinclair, it could affect college football markets like Pensacola, Fla., where subscribers would not be able to watch the ABC broadcast of the University of Florida playing Penn State University in the Outback Bowl.

Even if a deal is not reached, Time Warner customers would have access to Fox programs because Fox’s owner, News Corp., agreed to provide network programming in case a local station operator withholds its signal. That resulted from an agreement a year ago between the two companies to resolve a similar dispute over fees.

Another fight going on at the same time involves the Hearst Corp. family of stations, including NBC affiliate WBAL in Baltimore, and Direct TV.

“We’re still in direct negotiations with DirecTV,” Hearst spokesman Thomas Campo said. “That status has not changed.”

WBAL has been warning viewers that while it is optimistic, it is not certain a deal will be reached in time to prevent a lapse in coverage.

“We believe that we and DirecTV can conclude our negotiations before Jan. 1 so as not to deprive any of our respective viewers and customers of our programming,” WBAL-TV President and General Manager Jordan Wertlieb said in a prepared statement. “However, we want to advise our viewers and customers that the possibility of non-renewal of our current agreement exists.”

El Segundo, Calif.-based DirecTV is the second-largest satellite television provider. It has 18.9 million subscribers. Satellite providers, like their cable counterparts, are prohibited by law from carrying broadcasters’ signals without permission.

In a statement on DirecTV’s website, the company said customers will likely still be able to watch Hearst programming even if a deal is not reached by the deadline.

“We have been negotiating in good faith to try and reach a resolution and will continue to do so,” the company said. “If an agreement is not reached by the deadline, we intend to continue to provide the stations unless the station owner demands that we take them down. If they do come down, it will have been solely the station owner’s decision to take the channels away from our customers.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

One comment

  1. Again it is the little guy getting stepped on by the giant called greed.