- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2007

BALTIMORE (AP) — Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. planned to pull its television stations from Comcast Corp. cable systems at 2 a.m. today, barring a last-minute deal with the nation’s largest cable operator, a Sinclair official said yesterday.

The move would leave millions of Comcast customers in markets including Baltimore and Pittsburgh, where Sinclair owns Fox network affiliates including WBFF Channel 45, unable to watch the popular “American Idol” results show today — unless they hook up an antenna.

“It’s important for people to know there’s a chance they could wake up [Thursday] morning and the station might not be there anymore,” said Barry Faber, Sinclair’s vice president and general counsel.

The Hunt Valley, Md., broadcaster pulled its stations earlier this year from another cable provider, Mediacom Communications Corp., for several weeks during a similar dispute over “retransmission consent” — the permission granted by broadcasters to cable and satellite providers to carry stations that are available over the public airwaves.

Traditionally, broadcasters have allowed cable companies to retransmit signals from their stations for free, but Sinclair has begun demanding payment. The company argues that its programming is far more popular than the shows on channels that cable companies pay for.

“Our view is that we need to be compensated in connection with retransmission consent,” Mr. Faber said.

The company is expecting to receive $48 million in retransmission consent fees in 2007 — about double what it received last year, Mr. Faber said.

Philadelphia-based Comcast has 24.2 million cable customers. About 3 million of those, spread across 23 markets, receive Sinclair stations.

If Sinclair and Comcast do not reach a new retransmission consent agreement or extend their current one, Sinclair could order the cable company to stop carrying signals for 30 of the stations the broadcaster owns.

“Our first goal is to protect our customers from being charged extra for free TV,” Comcast spokeswoman Jenni Moyer said. “We continue to talk with Sinclair and will continue to offer Sinclair’s broadcast stations unless they demand that those stations be removed.”

About 700,000 Mediacom customers went without Sinclair stations for about four weeks before a deal was reached in early February, two days before the Super Bowl. Mediacom officials did not disclose the price but said they began paying to carry Sinclair stations for the first time.

According to analysts, Sinclair has less leverage in its negotiations with Comcast than it did in the Mediacom dispute. A far greater percentage of Sinclair customers than Comcast customers would be affected by Sinclair pulling the stations — which could jeopardize Sinclair’s advertising revenue.

“Comcast has a ton of scale, and they’re a tough negotiator,” said John Blackledge, who analyzes Sinclair for J.P. Morgan Chase. “They definitely have the ability to hold out if they don’t like the terms.”

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