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How much the Time Warner-LIN TV agreement will cost customers is an issue as yet unanswered. Cable deal still leaves questions hanging

Now that Channel 4 and Channel 23 have returned to Time Warner Cable after a 26-day standoff, the big questions are:

How much will it cost Time Warner customers?

Will viewers return to News 4 Buffalo?

WIVB-TV had been the top-rated news station in town for several years before the dispute knocked it out of about 50 percent of the area's homes and its ratings dropped by more than 50 percent. In the meantime, Channel 2 took the ratings lead for local news. Channel 7, which had been a poor third, moved to second.

The deal between Channel 4 and Channel 23's owner, LIN TV, and Time Warner was reached late Tuesday night after extensive negotiations at the national level, according to Channel 4 General Manager Chris Musial. Channel 4 programming returned to Time Warner customers early Wednesday morning.

Musial said Time Warner will carry Channel 23, the local CW affiliate, on a high-definition channel as part of the deal. Channel 4 already is carried in HD. Musial said he had no other details and didn't expect any to emerge because of a confidentiality clause.

Time Warner released a three-paragraph statement announcing the deal that offered no details.

What about a rate increase?

Robin Wolfgang, the local Time Warner spokeswoman, said it is too early to say if there will be an increase here because of the deal.

"We don't even have the details of the deal yet," she said. "We'll get the deal, analyze it and see what the impact will be."

Both Channel 7's owners and Channel 2's owners are believed to be facing similar contract talks with Time Warner within the coming months. If Time Warner gave Channel 4 more money, the other two will want a similar deal.

Meanwhile, Musial said he received several supportive e-mails Wednesday after the agreement was announced and the stations returned to cable.

"Some people have decided they want to stay with us, and some people may be sampling [competitors]," said Musial. "We're working hard to keep our loyal viewers in our camp."

Jacquie Walker, one of the station's primary anchors, answered her home phone Wednesday by saying, "Happy days are here again." She said she is excited about the station's return to cable but acknowledged there are concerns about getting news viewers back.

"Of course, we're concerned, but we've had a lot of wonderful support from viewers," said Walker. She said being off cable was "very, very difficult and very strange."

"In my three decades in this business, I've never encountered anything like this, nor has anyone in the newsroom," said Walker. "Our role is to serve the public, and when suddenly the [full] public can't see your message or the information you are providing for them, it is incredibly frustrating."

Of course, not all e-mails have been supportive. The station has taken a public relations hit in the battle with Time Warner, which initially said it didn't believe cable subscribers should subsidize two stations that they can receive free with outside antennas.

"I know that," Walker said of some viewer hostility. "I hope that they will understand this is part of a changing broadcast and cable industry all across the country. It was not invented by the owners of Channel 4."

She said that the impasse was the No. 1 topic of conversation with viewers she or anyone from the station met on the street or in stores.

"Our great concern during these 26 days has been that people understand that we here in Buffalo, from the executive offices on down to the newsroom, had absolutely no involvement in this decision or negotiations," Walker said. "We were waiting just like everyone else in Buffalo to hear any positive news."

The standoff started Oct. 3 and ended just before today's start of the "November sweeps" period. It lasted much longer than most experts expected. Sources have estimated that -- unless its advertisers were very understanding -- the station lost between $100,000 and $150,000 in net revenue per week. Musial continues to dispute that report but declined to give an actual figure.

"It wasn't anywhere near that," he said, "because of the willingness of very loyal clients and partners wanting to work with us in this process."

LIN TV, which fought the same battle in Green Bay, Wis.; Indianapolis; Austin, Texas; and several other markets, had asked the cable company for a penny a day per subscriber to carry the Buffalo stations. That figured to be about $1.2 million for Channel 4, the local CBS affiliate that carries most Buffalo Bills games and such popular prime-time programs as three "CSI" series.

Time Warner, which had been handing out rabbit ear antennas so subscribers could get the lost channels the old-fashioned way, wasn't revealing how many subscribers it lost to rival satellite and telecommunications providers. It also took a public relations hit.

Will the settlement make it easier for the owners of Channels 2 and 7 to make a deal when their time comes?

"Without knowing the details, I don't know for sure," Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner said, asked whether the LIN deal will help or hurt the station's owner, Gannett, make a deal with Time Warner. "Presumably, it would make it easier."

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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