Jack Bauer is facing a serious threat in Buffalo a few days before the Jan. 14 season premiere of "24" on Fox. Simon Cowell and Homer Simpson also might be caught in the crossfire between Time Warner Cable and Sinclair Broadcasting, the national owner of the local Fox and MyNetworkTV affiliates in Western New York.
A truce was announced shortly before the Dec. 31 negotiation deadline that could have allowed Sinclair to prevent Time Warner from carrying the stations without its permission. The two sides agreed to extend the deadline to Friday, Jan. 12, two nights before the premiere of "24," four nights before the next edition of "American Idol" and in the middle of the NFC playoffs.
The serious broadcasting issues impact areas way beyond Western New York. Indeed, local management of the Sinclair stations and the Time Warner division have no influence over what happens.
The bottom line is: The dispute is over the bottom line. Both sides have reasons to come up with some compromise that will allow Bauer to be seen on cable, a large portion of Buffalo to enjoy Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson skewer the newest "Idol" contestants and the local Fox channel finally carried in high definition on Time Warner.
In a nutshell, Sinclair wants to be compensated for its programming by cable, which carries the stations it owns here and in other markets. Sinclair feels the local network affiliates are among the most popular channels on cable and deserve to be paid just like little-watched cable channels like Oxygen and Hallmark that get per subscriber fees from cable systems.
Time Warner and the other large cable companies feel they shouldn't have to pay to carry channels that its subscribers could receive for free if they had an outside antenna or a powerful indoor antenna. Time Warner's traditional argument has lost some power now that cable has competition from satellite services and telephone companies, which may agree to compensation.
Sinclair and Time Warner both have much to lose if a compromise isn't reached. If they aren't on cable, WUTV and WNYO will lose a large percentage of viewers and won't be able to charge the same price for its advertising on shows like "American Idol" and "24" that would only be available over-the-air (and, in some cases, online at www.myspace.com).
If it drops the channels, Time Warner runs the risk of losing more subscribers to satellite television and, in the future, a telephone company that may soon be able to carry television channels in the market. Time Warner is offering subscribers a device that would allow the Sinclair stations to be seen without antennas and without cable, but that may be too complicated an arrangement for many subscribers. It says Sinclair is seeking "large cash payments" that other channels in the market have not demanded.
According to industry sources, the most likely scenario is for Time Warner to agree to give Sinclair some kind of compensation that isn't the same as the per subscriber fee it gives channels like ESPN, TNT, CNN, Oxygen, Hallmark and other cable channels.
The compensation could be a financial payment, free advertising and promotion on cable and an agreement to make available local programming as part of an On Demand service, sources said.
Sinclair's battle with Time Warner was described by one industry source as a "Big Test" case on the compensation issue. CBS executive Leslie Moonves has gone on record saying that he expects cable companies in the future to provide some form of compensation for carrying its network programming.
The Sinclair stations here are affiliated with Fox and MyNetworkTV, which comprise the great majority of the 58 stations in its group. But Sinclair also owns 10 ABC affiliates, including ones in Columbus and Dayton, Ohio. It owns eight CW affiliates, one CBS affiliate and one NBC affiliate. However, Time Warner says Sinclair isn't seeking money in all of the markets than it owns and operates stations.
But since all the networks are potentially impacted by this threat, there is even more reason for some form of compromise to be reached. It would be pretty shocking if a deal isn't struck, though it might take a few extensions beyond Jan. 12 to get it accomplished.
The worst-case scenario might be for the stations to briefly go off the air to create a firestorm of protests that will force both sides to settle things quickly. However, it would be somewhat surprising if it gets that far.
If all else fails, I suppose Bauer could be called upon to rescue technology-impaired cable subscribers from a season without "24" and "American Idol."