It may feel like a rerun, but Fox TV owner News Corp. is threatening to pull its broadcast stations, most cable channels and regional sports channels from all Time Warner Cable systems if both sides can't agree on new transmission contracts by Dec. 31.
That means Fox-owned Tampa affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13 could vanish from the area's largest cable system because Time Warner also secures content for Bright House Networks, which reaches nearly 1 million subscriber households in the Tampa Bay area. Another 800,000 households in the Orlando region could be affected.
Overall, 30 million people in 13 million households could be affected in New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Dallas and Detroit, as well as Orlando and Tampa, according to Fox.
If the programming is pulled, subscribers would lose access to Fox network shows such as House, The Simpsons and American Idol, along with cable channels such as Speed, FX and Fox Sports Network. (Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network have separate agreements.)
The fight also might speak to the future of broadcast television, because Fox is seeking $1 per subscriber from Time Warner and Bright House for the right to reair its broadcast stations.
Joe Durkin, a spokesman for Bright House, downplayed the fight and the possibility it might disrupt programming for Bright House, noting that such threats are often made during tough negotiations.
"This is a renegotiation of a long-standing contract that gets worked out every time," said Durkin. "This is somewhat of a routine part of the business. One side or the other starts to put some, um, an awareness out there for the consumers. But we fully expect this one will be worked out."
But media analyst Rich Greenfield has predicted the fight will result in dropped channels for at least a few days as each side tries to make a point.
The dispute became a news story Friday as Fox implemented a media campaign to warn viewers about the coming showdown with print advertisements, TV ads, the call-in number 1-866-KEEP-FOX and a Web site dubbed www.keepfoxon.com — complete with a countdown clock.
Time Warner has created its own site, rolloverorgettough.com, in which it asks visitors if it should "roll over or get tough" with unspecified TV networks that want a 300 percent increase in compensation.
In the past, cable systems haven't paid to rebroadcast network TV channels. But with advertising revenue falling, broadcasters have increasingly looked to "retransmission fees" from cable systems as a possible remedy.
One reason cable channels can succeed by airing shows with smaller audiences is because their revenue comes from two places: advertisements and carriage fees from cable systems.
Time Warner got into a similar struggle last year with Viacom, which threatened to pull popular cable channels such as VH1 and MTV, working out a deal hours before the deadline.
Tampa Bay residents may remember a similar fight between Fox and Time Warner in 1996. Back then, the sticking point was carriage of the newly formed Fox News Channel.