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Deadline for cable TV deal has area viewers on the edge Stalemate threatens favorites on Fox

The clock is ticking -- just as it does on Fox's suspense thriller "24" -- but this time, no one knows whether last-minute heroics will save the day.

A Friday deadline looms, as the complicated dispute between Time Warner Cable and Sinclair Broadcasting Group threatens to rob local Time Warner cable subscribers of their favorite Fox and MyNetworkTV shows.

That means that those cable subscribers could lose shows they now see on Fox's WUTV Channel 29 and MyNetworkTV's WNYO Channel 49.

As of late Wednesday, no one was blinking.

Local officials with both companies are doing the same thing nervous cable subscribers are doing. They're watching and waiting.

"The next deadline is Friday, and we're all waiting for that," said Nick Magnini, general manager at WUTV and WNYO. "This is not a Buffalo-only decision. Whatever decision is made on Friday will affect all the Time Warner/Sinclair markets."

Insiders have said they expect one of two outcomes: Either an agreement will be reached today or Friday, or the deadline will be extended.

"I have no reason to expect that they will not finalize something or have another extension," said Steve Jaworowski, vice president of marketing communications for Time Warner.

The worst-case scenario, those close to the situation have said, would result in the stations going off the air briefly.

Sinclair has TV stations in 34 U.S. markets. Roughly one-third of those communities, maybe a dozen to 15, also have Time Warner.

The dispute affects roughly one million Time Warner subscribers across the nation, company officials have said.

The two sides, which have been negotiating for several months, announced Dec. 31 that they were extending the deadline that day to Jan. 12, apparently at midnight. Since the end of the year, Time Warner has characterized the two sides as having an agreement in principle.

"We're continuing to negotiate," Jaworowski added. "I wouldn't classify it as a dispute. We have an agreement in principle, and there are a lot of details we have to work out."

While the issue between the two sides is complicated, it boils down to one basic point: whether Sinclair should be compensated for the Fox and MyNetworkTV programming it provides to Time Warner.

Sinclair argues that it should be paid, just like lesser-watched cable networks, such as the Animal Planet and Oxygen. Time Warner counters that it shouldn't have to pay for channels its subscribers could receive free with an antenna.

Negotiations have been going on for months, to replace existing agreements that expired at the end of the year. In Buffalo and some other markets, Time Warner assumed these agreements when it replaced Adelphia Communications Corp.

While it appears the unlikeliest of scenarios, even a brief disruption would be crucial, for the stations, advertisers and viewers.

"The way I look at it, a lot of major programming that we all want to watch starts on Saturday," Magnini said.

Fox is scheduled to televise National Football Conference playoff games Saturday and Sunday, the season premiere of "24" Sunday and Monday, and the start of a new "American Idol" season Tuesday.


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