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Midnight deadline looms in Time Warner, Fox dispute

Network set to be dropped from cable lineup after turning down arbitration offer.

Brian Gaar

After attempts to end a contract stalemate failed Wednesday, Fox is set to disappear from local Time Warner Cable subscribers' TV screens at midnight tonight.

That means college football fans might have to look elsewhere to watch some BCS bowl games, and Dallas Cowboys' fans could miss their team's season finale.

Despite pleas from U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the network on Wednesday rejected the possibility of arbitration in its ongoing contract negotiations with Time Warner Cable.

Time Warner's current deal with Fox in several markets, including Austin, is set to expire at midnight.

Earlier Wednesday, Time Warner agreed to a request from Kerry, who pleaded for both sides to agree to uninterrupted television for football fans "through the college bowl season."

Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt said Wednesday that the cable operator would consent to binding arbitration and any interim steps necessary to keep Fox channels on while talks continue.

"Consumers should not be held hostage during these negotiations. That's just wrong," Britt said.

But Fox turned that idea down Wednesday afternoon.

"We respectfully believe these discussions do not belong in the hands of a third party," Chase Carey, the president and chief operating officer of Fox owner News Corp., wrote to Kerry.

Carey told staff in a memo earlier in the day that a signal interruption was likely when the current deal over fees expires. The company did not directly address an offer by Time Warner to continue to carry its signal while talks continue.

According to news reports, Fox has requested a monthly $1 per subscriber fee in exchange for allowing Time Warner to carry the network's signals. Time Warner refused.

In the past, networks have not received cash fees for allowing their broadcast network channels to be carried on cable, although they have been paid for their cable channels.

The negotiations are being closely watched throughout the television industry because they could set a precedent if Fox ends up wrangling a significant fee from Time Warner.

A similar dispute between Time Warner and local NBC affiliate KXAN left that channel's programming off the cable company's roster for almost a month in fall of 2008.

Should no agreement be reached today, and Fox local and network programming become unavailable to Time Warner subscribers for a similar length of time, those subscribers would not only miss several highly anticipated sporting events (including some remaining NFL games and three BCS bowl games) but also new episodes of returning Fox prime-time series coming off their holiday breaks, midseason premieres of popular shows including "24" and "American Idol" and the premiere of the new series "Human Target."

Also affected would be content from Fox cable channels FX, Speed, Fuel TV, the Fox Movie Channel and regional sports outlets such as Fox Sports Southwest.

Finding alternatives

Asked whether there were any plans to increase video feeds of locally generated content to Austin affiliate KTBC's Web site, www.myfoxaustin.com, a News Corp. spokeswoman declined to comment beyond a standard statement on the company's "good faith" negotiations with Time Warner.

So, what's a sports fan to do? Although Fox does make some prime-time content available on a delayed basis online, it's unlikely that sporting events will be available via computer.

"I would hate to see Time Warner drop Fox, but as far as numbers go, it would definitely boost business," said Ariel Watson, a manager at Third Base, a sports bar with three area locations, including 1717 W. Sixth St. The sports bar's Web site promotes the venue as a place to view Sunday's Cowboys vs. Eagles game as well as the BCS matchups .

"If Time Warner Cable drops Fox on New Year's Day, don't worry," a notice on the site reads. "We will have you covered for all your NFL games and the Bowl Championship Series."

Watson says Third Base is ordering extra chairs and tables for their big-screen laden patio and back dock areas. "We're definitely preparing for that scenario," she said.

Both sites have prime-time content of current Fox shows, generally posted as soon as the next day after broadcast.

Another option is Apple's iTunes store, which also posts new episodes as early as a day after broadcast.

Fox and Hulu content is ad-supported, so you won't have to pay, but you will have to sit through commercials. ITunes content is commercial-free, but that luxury comes at a price: The latest episodes of "24," "Fringe" and "Bones," for example, go for $2.99 apiece.

Time Warner has posted information to its site dedicated to the standoff, RollOverorGet Tough.com, on how subscribers can receive Fox content using an over-the-air antenna or hooking their computers up to their television screens.

Shows at risk

Here is a partial list of upcoming sporting events, premieres and returning Fox series that would be unavailable to Time Warner Cable subscribers if the company does not reach an agreement with Fox today and the dispute drags on:

• Three BCS bowl games: the Friday Sugar Bowl (Florida vs. Cincinnati), the Monday Fiesta Bowl (Boise State vs. TCU) and the Tuesday Orange Bowl (Georgia Tech vs. Iowa).

• The Saturday Cotton Bowl Classic (Oklahoma State vs. Ole Miss) and the last game of the Dallas Cowboys' regular season Sunday against Philadelphia.

• New episodes of "House" (Jan. 11), "Bones" (Jan. 14) and "Fringe" (Jan. 14).

• Season premieres of returning series' "American Idol" (Jan. 12, 13) and "24" (Jan. 17, 18); series premiere of "Human Target" (Jan. 17).

Additional material from The Associated Press.