By Melanie S. Welte
The Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa — While the Iowa Hawkeyes prepare for their biggest bowl game in years, thousands of their fans back home may be scrambling to find a TV to watch them.
Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s demand that cable company Mediacom Communications Corp. pay more to carry its stations could leave 700,000 cable subscribers in 11 states without some local channels on Jan. 1. That includes about 400,000 subscribers in Iowa, most of whom will lose the channel televising the Jan. 5 Orange Bowl between Iowa and Georgia Tech.
The cable showdown is part of a long-running national battle over what are known as carriage fees. Cable TV operators claim owners of broadcast stations and cable channels are gouging their customers by demanding ever-rising payments. Content owners respond that cable companies earn outsized profits by simply retransmitting their valuable channels.
Cable customers are caught in the crossfire.
“It’s a huge outrage,” said Brandon Huggins, a store clerk at a university apparel shop in Iowa City, home to the Hawkeyes. “I’d like to think they’ll figure something out, or make an exception for Iowa City.”
Barry Faber, executive vice president and general counsel to Hunt Valley, Md.-based Sinclair, said he’s “very pessimistic” an agreement will be reached with Middletown, N.Y.-based Mediacom by Dec. 31, when the current three-year deal ends.
That means customers in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and other Iowa cities will miss the Orange Bowl unless they find a TV with a satellite connection or rely on an antenna.
Sinclair stations also could be pulled from Mediacom customers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. Shows such as “NCIS,” ”American Idol” and “24″ as well as the Super Bowl and the BCS national championship game could be at stake.
Earlier this year, Time Warner Cable Inc. worked out a last-minute deal with Viacom Inc. that averted a blackout of Nickelodeon, MTV and 17 other channels for millions of subscribers.
Time Warner Cable is now waging an ad campaign accusing other programmers of demanding unreasonable fee increases that it would have to pass along to subscribers. Last week, however, Time Warner Cable reached a contract extension with Sinclair to carry its TV stations.
Mediacom and Sinclair have been negotiating a new retransmission agreement since April. Faber said Sinclair, a video programming wholesaler, hasn’t been able to agree with Mediacom on the price for the right to resell the programming.
Mediacom claims it’s about holding down costs for consumers.
“For our customer’s best interest (we) want to be sure it’s a fair price and we can do our best to hold down the cost,” company spokeswoman Phyllis Peters said.
This is the second time the two companies have been locked in a standoff. The current contract was worked out after Sinclair stations were pulled from Mediacom for about five weeks in early 2007. A new agreement was reached two days before the Super Bowl.
This time, Peters said, Sinclair is demanding a significant increase, although neither company would divulge the price. Mediacom has asked the Federal Communications Commission to get involved and prevent a disruption of service.
“Consumers are really being played as pawns in this,” Peters said.
With the Iowa game approaching, Peters said members of the state’s congressional delegation, Gov. Chet Culver, legislative leaders and a host of Iowa mayors have sent letters to the FCC.
“None of them are saying one party is right and one party is wrong. All are saying consumers have a stake in this and the FCC needs to look at what it can do to prevent customers from being harmed while good-faith negotiations continue,” she said.
An FCC spokeswoman declined comment.
At Paul’s Discount Store in Iowa City, the shop windows are covered in festive Hawkeye signs, but inside store manager Dick Irvin is fuming about the disagreement that may force him to seek an invite from a friend with a satellite dish.
“I think greed is part of this whole thing. It really comes down to greed,” Irvin said. A bowl game “happens once a year, if that, and this one is so big.”