As Fox TV owner News Corp. and Time Warner Cable continue their fight over fees, consumers were stuck watching a giant game of chicken where they may be the ultimate losers.
Even the nation's top broadcast regulator seemed to strike out on Thursday as he urged Time Warner Cable and the Fox network to agree to a temporary deal that would keep football games on cable TV systems as the companies settle differences over fees.
A failure to agree before a midnight Thursday deadline could mean today's Sugar Bowl between the Florida Gators and the Cincinnati Bearcats would be dropped for more than 6 million cable customers in markets nationwide, including 2 million in the Tampa Bay area and Orlando. The Cotton Bowl on Saturday, the NFL's final regular season contests on Sunday and The Simpsons and other Fox shows were also at risk.
Time Warner is a partner in the Bright House Networks cable system and helps secure their programming. The immediate impact of a Fox blackout on Bright House could be felt most by college football fans, particular those of the Florida Gators. Tonight's Sugar Bowl is being broadcast by Fox at 8:30, but Tim Tebow's final game as Florida quarterback will not be seen if a resolution is not reached.
Other TV providers will continue to have Fox channels, including Verizon FIOS, DirecTV and DISH networks.
Current Bright House customers and Gators fans were clear about what they'd do if a deal isn't reached soon.
Kelly Gosset, 44, of St. Petersburg said she and her family had already been considering switching to Verizon.
If Fox pulls the plug on its programming, especially the Sugar Bowl, it could be a tipping point, she said Thursday night while playing pool at Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill in St. Petersburg.
"It would be a serious consideration whether I leave Bright House or not," said Gosset, a longtime subscriber. "You can't take football away. This is a football state. They should at least get through the bowls."
Gosset's 13-year-old son, Mickey, had other ideas.
"Riot! Riot!" he said.
Ken Klotz isn't planning on rioting, but he has already made plans to watch tonight's game at Ferg's.
"I'm not very happy about this," he said. "If they (Bright House) don't get the Gators, I will drop it and go to satellite."
Klotz, 62, said he has already downgraded his cable and Internet services because of the economy. He predicted that if a deal beween the two companies isn't reached soon, more people will follow his lead or even cancel service altogether.
Other sporting events also are in jeopardy of not being seen on Bright House, including Saturday afternoon's Lightning-Penguins game on Sun Sports, which is owned by Fox, and Sunday's Bucs-Falcons game. In addition, Orlando Magic and several college basketball games are slated to be shown on Sun Sports and Fox Sports Florida in the coming days. Other sports channels affected by the impasse include Fuel TV, the Speed Channel, Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Sports en Espanol.
FCC chairman Julius Genachowski called for a temporary extension of the expiring deal so cable customers could continue to watch Fox programming.
"Companies shouldn't force cable-watching football fans to scramble for other means of TV delivery on New Year's weekend," he said.
Time Warner Cable is open to a temporary extension, but Fox owner News Corp. has said that would just prolong what it terms an unfair deal.
Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network are not affected by this standoff, though channels such as FX, Speed, Fuel and Fox Sports are.
More than 1 million households in the Tampa Bay area receive TV service through Bright House, the community's dominant cable system. And the local Fox affiliate station, WTVT-Ch. 13, is owned by News Corp., which means it could vanish from Bright House cable.
Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks have resisted paying a new $1 monthly fee per subscriber that News Corp. is demanding from both operators to retransmit signals from 14 Fox-owned TV stations.
Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt has called the fee demand excessive and said the cable operator has reached deals for "much lower" rates with Fox affiliates — stations that carry Fox programming but are owned by other companies.
Consumers would still be able to get the stations in the affected markets with an antenna if they have a digital TV or converter box, but most Americans these days get broadcast channels through subscription services such as cable TV or satellite.
The FCC's authority to order binding arbitration or a deal extension in these types of disputes is unclear and has never really been tested, according to Paul Gallant, an analyst at Concept Capital.
Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, said that if no deal was reached, it could call into question the effectiveness of the 1992 cable law that allowed broadcasters to negotiate for fees from cable and satellite companies. Congress and the FCC might be forced to respond with "swift action," he said.
Any blackout is likely to be brief, meaning Fox would likely return in time for the American Idol season premiere on Jan. 12. Last year, Viacom threatened to pull Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and other channels from Time Warner Cable in a fee dispute but the two reached a deal in the final hours.
Satellite TV provider Dish Network looked to cash in on the dispute with print, radio and TV ads in markets around the country telling Time Warner Cable costumers, "Don't risk missing your favorite shows."
Dish spokeswoman Allyson Mylrea said the satellite provider has seen an uptick in calls from those customers since the dispute became public, but she declined to provide any specific figures.
Times staff writers Tom Jones, Kameel Stanley and Eric Deggans contributed to this report.