The Fox television network pulled back from the brink on Friday, allowing its signals to continue for millions of cable subscribers beyond a midnight deadline as it continued to seek higher fees for its programming.
The News Corp. broadcaster had threatened to force two cable companies - Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks - to drop the Fox broadcast signal from 14 of its TV stations and half a dozen of its cable channels as a contract expired at midnight Thursday.
Even as talks continued into Friday, the conciliatory stance made it appear a disruption would not occur - likely preserving access to the Sugar Bowl college football game (starting at 8:30 p.m. EST) and other programming for more than 6 million cable subscribers in New York, Los Angeles, Orlando, Fla., and other markets.
It was unclear how long the reprieve would last, however. That left fans looking forward to the Florida-Cincinnati bowl matchup in doubt about whether they would need to head to sports bars with a satellite TV hookup to cheer on their teams.
"It leaves some people up in limbo as to whether to leave their homes to watch the game," said Dan Beiley, 28, president of the Gotham Gators, a University of Florida alumni club in New York. "It's certainly unfortunate that it came to all this."
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, who earlier urged the companies to preserve TV access throughout the college football bowl season, said he was "pleased" at the decision to keep Fox programming on cable while talks went on.
Fox spokesman Scott Grogin said at about 1 p.m. EST Friday the companies were "still negotiating."
Time Warner Cable Inc. Chief Executive Glenn Britt said the ball was now in Fox's court.
"We've done everything we can to reach a fair agreement and now it's really up to Fox," Britt said in a statement Friday. "We hope they will agree to a deal that's reasonable for everyone."
Fox wants to be paid $1 per cable subscriber each month for the broadcast signal it now gives away freely from the stations it owns. Other Fox affiliate stations that are owned by different companies have already cut deals to be paid by cable operators for a fraction of that fee.
Fox says it can no longer give away its stations' signals because the network is facing stiff competition from cable channels, such as the Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN, which earn subscriber fees on top of advertising dollars.
That dual revenue stream allowed ESPN to outbid Fox for high-priced events such as the college football Bowl Championship Series - including the Sugar Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Orange Bowl that are now on Fox - from 2011 to 2013.
Time Warner Cable, in the meantime, has vowed to hold the line on cable bill increases, and said the vast of majority of viewers who went to its Web site, http://www.rolloverorgettough.com , urged it to "get tough" and fight back higher costs.
Neither side would fare well if signals were pulled in a dispute.
Fox would lose viewers and advertising dollars for some highly anticipated shows this month, including the 20th anniversary special of "The Simpsons" on Jan. 10, and the season premieres of "American Idol" on Jan. 12 and "24" on Jan. 17. It urged viewers to go to its Web site, http://www.keepfoxon.com .
If the signal were dropped, cable operators could anger customers, who can switch to competitive television providers such as DirecTV or AT&T's U-verse that carry Fox programming. Satellite TV provider Dish Network, which already has a deal with Fox, has been heavily advertising in newspapers, radio and TV telling Time Warner Cable customers, "Don't risk missing your favorite shows."
TV viewers could also decide to cut off their cable entirely and watch the Fox broadcast network using an antenna with a digital TV or converter box.
Karen Amaya, a 30-year-old schoolteacher and Time Warner Cable subscriber in Van Nuys, Calif., said she hoped a deal was reached so she can watch "American Idol" episodes. But she had options if the signal was cut.
"I'd end up watching them online," she said.
Separately, Cablevision Systems Corp. said early Friday it had dropped HGTV and Food Network for its 3.1 million subscribers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in a fee dispute with Scripps Networks Interactive Inc., based in Cincinnati.
Time Warner Cable continued to carry Food Network and Great American Country under a temporary deal extension as its talks with Scripps also continued.
Fox and CBS signals from Sinclair Broadcasting Group Inc. stations in markets such as Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, also continued to be carried by cable company Mediacom Communications Corp. in a temporary deal extension.
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