- Associated Press - Friday, December 31, 2010

CANTONMENT, FLA. (AP) - Montey Chapel and his sons have a new flat-screen television and football-watching plan for New Year’s weekend _ watch every bowl game.

"Six hours, 12 hours, as long as they last we will be watching," Chapel said.

That is, unless they are among the latest victims of a long-running feud in the TV industry over the fees that cable providers pay to carry channels on their lineups.

Unless the dispute is resolved in time, Chapel and his sons would be left without the game they’re most excited for: Florida and Penn State in Saturday’s Outback Bowl.

Millions of people around the country could find themselves in a similar spot this weekend. As a midnight Friday deadline approaches, Sinclair Broadcast Group still doesn’t have a deal with cable TV operators Time Warner Cable Inc. and Bright House Networks.

However, Time Warner Cable said late Thursday that it will continue to provide all available Big 4 network programming this weekend even if Hunt Valley, Md.-based Sinclair pulls local programming, such as the evening news.

Such a plan could mean that college football fans may be able to watch Saturday’s ABC broadcast of the Gators playing in the Outback bowl after all.

Without an agreement, Sinclair plans to pull its signals from those two systems. Chapel is a Bright House customer, and Sinclair owns the ABC station in Pensacola, which is carrying the Outback Bowl. Sinclair owns 32 other stations in areas of the country where Time Warner or Bright House has customers.

A last minute deal could still head off any game day disappointments.

But Joe Smith, who operates Sinclair’s ABC station in Pensacola, said the outlook for Florida Gators fans in the area wasn’t good. "It is quite possible we will be off out there on game day," he said.

Bright House did not return several phone messages left by The Associated Press. Time Warner has said it remained ready to negotiate.

Consumers would still be able to get the stations with an antenna if they have a digital TV or converter box, but most Americans these days get broadcast channels through subscription services such as cable TV or satellite.

Disputes such as these are cropping up more frequently as the broadcast TV industry looks for a sturdier business model. Broadcast companies used to allow cable providers to carry their channels for free and made their money selling commercial time. But they face growing competition from cable channels. And the recession drove home how quickly cash-strapped businesses will rein in ad spending.

A few months ago, in a similar dispute, Cablevision Systems Corp. customers went without Fox programming for 15 days _ missing two World Series games.

As cable providers resist higher program fees demanded by broadcasters, TV viewers are getting caught in the middle.

Montey Chapel and his sons aren’t sure what they will do if they can’t watch the Outback Bowl at home. "That’s the biggest game of the entire day," said Chris Chapel, a Florida graduate.

Bright House subscriber Billy Dortch _ an Alabama fan, himself _ may have bad news for his fiance, who roots for Florida.

"I don’t know how I will break it to her if we don’t get the Florida game," he said, unloading groceries in the parking lot of Cantonment store.

Shane Wiley, dressed in a Florida Gators’ sweat shirt, pulled into a parking spot nearby. Wiley said he has been a Florida fan for the last 15 years and wasn’t going to let the cable dispute cause him to miss the game. He has already looked into switching from Bright House to a satellite service. If he can’t do that in time, he will go to a friend’s house, he said.

Jennifer Stokes’ SUV is adorned with a Florida Gator on the front license plate. The Bright House subscriber said there is no way she and her large group of family and friends will miss the Outback Bowl.

"We will just go somewhere else and watch it. It’s a big deal," she said.

It wasn’t known how many Time Warner and Bright House subscribers are in markets served by Sinclair. Potentially affected are 33 Sinclair stations in 21 markets _ among them Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC affiliates.

However, Fox owner News Corp. has agreed to provide Time Warner with network programming in case a local station operator withholds its signal. That means Time Warner customers would still get shows such as "Glee," "House" and "The Simpsons," even if they couldn’t watch the local Fox newscast.

Besides Pensacola, the potentially affected ABC stations are in Charleston, W.Va., Greensboro, N.C. and Dayton and Columbus, Ohio.

Rick Kolloff, who helps organize Penn State alumni gatherings to watch football games in the Columbus area, said he’s received no questions or complaints from fans about the cable dispute. His Penn State Alumni Association chapter plans to watch the Outback Bowl at a pub that uses a satellite TV service.

"I guess I’ll be interested to see whether folks that are anxious to see that game will leave their house when they normally might not have and come out and join us," he said.


AP Writer Kantele Franko in Columbus contributed to this report.

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