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Bills fans have their antennas out Giveaway gets exceptionally good reception as dispute keeps game off Time Warner Cable

A different strain of Buffalo Bills fever gripped the region Saturday.

Fans scrambled for ways to watch today's big game, which apparently will not be carried by a major cable system serving most of the region.

Thousands of fans spent part of their Saturday waiting in long lines to pick up free "rabbit ears" antennas that Time Warner Cable was giving to customers, and many others purchased antennas at electronics stores.

Other fans went into their attics or basements to retrieve old television sets they hadn't used in years. Some begged to be invited to the homes of friends and family members who have satellite TV dishes and aren't affected by the blackout.

Still others made plans to watch today's game between the Bills and the Arizona Cardinals in sports bars with satellite hookups.

Time Warner said the blackout affects about 330,000 customers in Western New York.

"This is the Bills. They are winning. People love it, and they will do anything to get the game on television," Mike Hill, a 20-year-old college student from North Tonawanda, said as he waited in line at the cable company's office on Maple Road in Amherst.

Barring a last-minute agreement, Time Warner Cable customers will not receive the game from their cable service because of a dispute between Time Warner and WIVB-TV, which is broadcasting the game on Channel 4.

As of Saturday evening, each side still blamed the other, but also said negotiations were continuing in hopes of reaching an agreement before the game starts at 4:15 p.m.

"I love the Bills. My parrot even loves to watch them," said Phyllis Schunk, 73, who showed up at an Amherst office of the cable company five hours before the scheduled start of the antenna giveaway.

"I know a lot of people who would be disappointed if they couldn't see the Bills," said her sister, Arlene M. Martin, 71. "These big companies should be able to put their heads together and work something out."

When the two sisters picked up their antennas, Hill, the North Tonawanda resident, still was in a line, two and three people deep, about a quarter-mile down Maple Road.

Like many other fans, Hill said he was frustrated that Time Warner and LIN TV, which owns Channel 4, could not hammer out an agreement.

According to Robin Wolfgang, Time Warner spokeswoman, LIN TV insists that the cable company pay an unreasonable fee to allow its customers to view Channel 4 and its sister station, Channel 23.

That would force customers to pay the extra cost and set up a "greedy" new business model that Buffalo's Channel 2 and Channel 7 also might want to follow, Wolfgang said.

Chris Musial, the general manager of Channels 4 and 23, disagreed, saying Time Warner has had 45 days to reach an agreement with LIN TV, but has not done so.

Regardless of blame, the situation was an unwanted annoyance to longtime Bills fan Seymour Suchman, 82, and his wife, Margie, 77, who plan to watch today's game on an old black-and-white set they dug out of their basement.

"It's a terrible situation," said Suchman, a Williamsville resident who has rooted for the Bills since the team was formed in 1960. "Situations like this always come down to money and greed."

"We haven't watched this TV in at least nine years. Just when the Bills get good again, this happens," Margie Suchman said.

LIN TV cut off its feed of channels 4 and 23 to Time Warner's Buffalo-area service early Friday morning, after no agreement was reached by a midnight Thursday deadline. But Time Warner customers can watch Channel 4 broadcasts by hooking their televisions up to the old-fashioned antennas known as "rabbit ears."

Wolfgang said "a lot more" than 9,000 Time Warner customers picked up free antennas during a four-hour rush that began at 2 p.m. The antennas were available at locations in Amherst, Buffalo, Orchard Park and West Seneca.

Business was especially brisk in West Seneca, where the cable company set up a "drive-through" operation that allowed people to get their antennas without getting out of their cars.

Wolfgang said the company was giving out hundreds of antennas an hour Saturday.

"This is a unique situation, and this company has engaged in Herculean efforts to get as many of these [antennas] as we can for our customers," Wolfgang said. "We're paying a lot of money to get them shipped here from sources all over the country."

Customers still can pick up antennas from noon until 2 p.m. today at the 789 Indian Church Road location in West Seneca. Time Warner also is offering a $20 credit to customers who purchase antennas at Best Buy, Circuit City, K-Mart, Radio Shack, Target or Wal-Mart stores.

Customers can get more information on the company's hotline at (866) 664-2793, or at www.timewarnercable.com.

While Wolfgang said most Time Warner customers seemed to appreciate the company's efforts, more than a few expressed disgust with the situation while waiting in line at the Amherst location.

"We've been getting Channel 4 for free for years. Now, they want money for it, so it seems to me that Channel 4 is at fault," said Mike Seaman, 48, a commercial printer from the Town of Tonawanda.

"I think there's some kind of conspiracy," said Don Lewicki, also from Tonawanda. "I think the [chief executive officers] of these big companies are getting together and trying to force people to buy satellite dishes."

Phyllis Schunk said she just wants the matter settled so she can watch football games with her pet parrot, Teka.

"I trained him to say, 'Here we go, Buffalo Bills,' " Schunk said, "and when we score a touchdown, he flaps his wings up and down."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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