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Bills fans in Niagara to see game on cable

Buffalo Bills fans in Niagara County may want to stock up on some extra beer and chips this weekend. Company might be coming.

For the first time this month, Time Warner customers in Niagara County will be able to watch a Bills football game on cable TV -- and they will be unique from cable viewers in seven neighboring counties who also are casualties of the dispute between Time Warner and the parent company of WIVB-TV in Buffalo, unless the dispute is resolved by game time.

Time Warner won't feed Channel 4's Bills-San Diego Chargers broadcast to Niagara County. Instead, county residents will be able to pick up the game from CFTO-TV in Toronto.

The county is the only one in Bills country deemed by the Federal Communications Commission to be a "significantly viewed" area for CFTO, because a certain percentage of the county's 30,000 Time Warner subscribers tune into the Canadian station an average of at least five minutes per week.

So Time Warner has federal permission to broadcast the game in Niagara.

"We don't do the programming," Time Warner spokeswoman Robin L. Wolfgang told The Buffalo News Friday. "We were merely alerting our customers. We saw on [CFTO's] schedule that they are airing the Bills game this weekend."

That means cable television sets in North Tonawanda can be tuned to the Bills game on Sunday afternoon, but not sets across the Erie Canal in the City of Tonawanda. "It doesn't make sense to me," Tonawanda Mayor Ronald J. Pilozzi said. "We're known as the Twin Cities. What's good for one should be good for the other.

"It's like having kids and giving candy to one and not to the other."

Ray Milliron, a City of Tonawanda cable customer, was angered that he wouldn't be getting the game on his set. He said on game day, he plans to visit his sister, Shirley Jane, across the bridge in North Tonawanda.

He didn't spare harsh criticism for either corporate combatant.

"They're like two punk kids that won't give in," Milliron said. "They're not thinking about the viewers -- that's for sure."

In addition to Erie County, Channel 4 also is unavailable on Time Warner cable in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Orleans, Genesee, Wyoming and Allegany counties.

Time Warner has 330,000 customers in Western New York. Subscribers locally in every other county but Niagara won't be able to watch the game without an antenna that brings in Channel 4's broadcast signal or a television set that gets Rochester's CBS affiliate, WROC.

Time Warner hasn't carried Channel 4 since Oct. 2, when LIN TV Corp., the Rhode Island-based owner of WIVB-TV, and WNLO-TV, Channel 23, removed the stations from the cable company in a contract dispute. LIN is asking for about $1.2 million a year locally from Time Warner.

Wolfgang stressed Friday that the Niagara-only viewing rule is a decision by the Federal Communications Commission, not Time Warner. "They drew a line at Niagara County," she said. "These are not rules laid out by Time Warner. They are laid out by the FCC."

Wolfgang said Time Warner has given out 40,000 free antennas to viewers in the past three weeks so they can watch Channel 4 without cable. Antennas are still available in Time Warner cable stores in Amherst, Buffalo, Orchard Park and West Seneca, she said.

On Friday, the dispute caught the attention of Gov. David A. Paterson, who urged the two sides to return to the negotiating table and offered his deputy secretary for labor and financial regulation to assist in the talks.

In a letter to Glenn A. Britt, president and chief executive officer of Time Warner Cable, and Vincent L. Sadusky, president and CEO of LIN TV, Paterson also said Sunday's Bills game against the San Diego Chargers should be broadcast while the sides talk.

"These games are an important engine of the state economy, but, on an emotional level, they are also a source of state pride," Paterson said in the letter sent Friday afternoon.

"I understand that you have a responsibility to your shareholders to maximize revenue, but right now, all sides are hurting," wrote Paterson.

Paterson encouraged the sides to take him up on his offer to bring Hitchcock into the talks; the Paterson aide was part of the negotiations that led to a federal bailout of the insurance giant American International Group.

News Staff Reporters Gene Warner and Tom Precious contributed to this report.

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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