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Fox expected to disappear from Time Warner Cable

Brian Gaar

Barring a last-minute deal, Fox was poised to go off the air for Time Warner Cable customers at midnight Thursday after the two sides couldn't reach an agreement to extend their contract.

The network and cable company continued negotiating Thursday, but there was no breakthrough in the months-long impasse. Time Warner's current deal with Fox in several markets, including Austin, expired at midnight.

Failure to agree before that deadline could mean today's Sugar Bowl between the Florida Gators and the Cincinnati Bearcats would be dropped for more than 6 million cable customers in such markets as New York, Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla. Viewers also risked missing the Cotton Bowl on Saturday, the NFL's final regular season contests on Sunday and "The Simpsons" and other Fox shows.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski called for a temporary extension of the expiring deal so cable customers could continue to watch Fox programming.

"Companies shouldn't force cable-watching football fans to scramble for other means of TV delivery on New Year's weekend," he said in a statement Thursday evening.

While scraps between cable companies and broadcasters are common, this one potentially has broader implications.

Time Warner Cable and a smaller cable TV operator, Bright House Networks, have resisted paying a new $1 monthly fee per subscriber that News Corp. is seeking from both operators to retransmit signals from 14 Fox-owned TV stations.

Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt has called the fee demand excessive and said the cable operator has reached deals for "much lower" rates with Fox affiliates — stations that carry Fox programming but are owned by other companies.

Executives at other networks are reportedly watching the fight to see whether Fox can wrangle a substantial fee from Time Warner.

This week, Britt said that the cable TV operator would agree to binding arbitration and any interim steps necessary to keep Fox channels on while talks continued. But Fox rejected that idea.

Lawmakers have urged the two sides to come to at least a temporary agreement.

On Thursday, Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., called for a 30-day "cooling-off" period in a letter to Britt and News Corp. chief operating officer Chase Carey.

Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, said that if no deal was reached, it could call into question the effectiveness of the 1992 cable law that allowed broadcasters to negotiate for fees from cable and satellite companies. Congress and the FCC might be forced to respond with "swift action," he said.

"Fox may be entitled to increased compensation, but denying 4 million innocent customers access to programming — particularly one-time national events like bowl games — is not an appropriate negotiating tactic," Gonzalez wrote in a letter to Carey.

Besides the Fox broadcast network, cable channels FX, Speed, Fuel, Fox Reality, Fox Soccer and Fox Sports en Español and certain regional sports networks were up for negotiations throughout the Time Warner Cable and Bright House service territories.

Satellite TV provider Dish Network looked to cash in on the dispute with print, radio and TV ads telling Time Warner Cable customers, "Don't risk missing your favorite shows."

Dish spokeswoman Allyson Mylrea said the satellite provider has seen an uptick in calls from those customers since the dispute became public, but she declined to provide any specific figures.

In case the talks fared poorly, Time Warner Cable was preparing to put up a message in place of the Fox broadcast putting the blame on Fox.

Meanwhile, Fox was preparing a fleet of ads on rival ABC, CBS and NBC stations telling viewers alternative ways of seeing its programming.

Separately, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which owns broadcast stations in markets as large as Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, agreed to an eight-day extension for cable TV operator Mediacom Communications Corp. to carry Sinclair's Fox and CBS stations. Mediacom will pay Sinclair a higher rate than it was paying under a contract that also was expiring at midnight Thursday.

Additional material from The Associated Press.; 912-5932