PORTLAND – Come January, local Time Warner Cable customers may find themselves one channel short.

Time Warner and Sinclair Broadcast Group, parent company of Portland’s local CBS affiliate, WGME, have been unable to reach a new business contract governing fees that Time Warner pays to Sinclair.

If no contract is signed by Dec. 31, when the old contract expires, Time Warner may have to drop WGME from its lineup, leaving Portland-area cable customers unable to watch CBS shows such as “60 Minutes,” “CSI Miami,” “How I Met Your Mother,” even New England Patriots football games.

Estimates by Time Warner and Sinclair put the number of cable customers who would be affected by a blackout at 250,000 to 300,000.

“For many months we have been negotiating with Time Warner for a renewal. Unfortunately, we are extremely pessimistic about the chance that we will get a new deal done. The companies are far apart,” said Barry Faber, executive vice president and general counsel at Sinclair. Faber said Sinclair is seeking an increase equal to “less than a penny a day per subscriber.”

Peter DeWitt, Time Warner’s communications director for the Northeast, said the cable company is still actively negotiating with Sinclair.

“We know the channel is important to our customers. We negotiate dozens of programming arrangements each year,” DeWitt said.

On Nov. 10, WGME began notifying viewers of the possible blackout with an on-air message.

“Effective January 1, 2011, this station may no longer be carried by Time Warner Cable. We repeat: Time Warner may be dropping carriage of this station,” the message reads.

It is not unusual for cable companies and broadcast channels to fail to come to terms, resulting in channel blackouts. Earlier this month, Fox Broadcasting Co. and Cablevision reached an agreement after a two-week stalemate that left cable customers in New York and Pennsylvania without Fox channels.

Faber said that in the early days of cable TV, cable companies could show network channels without compensating them. A 1992 law, however, allowed networks to negotiate with cable companies.

Faber said network channels such as CBS provide some of the most popular programming on cable television, but under current contracts, receive only a fraction of program revenue.

“We don’t think they compensate us in any way consistent with that,” he said.

In addition to Portland’s WGME, the Sinclair-Time Warner contract covers 32 other stations in 20 markets, including stations in Texas, Kentucky, Ohio, North and South Carolina, Florida, New York, Virginia, Missouri, West Virginia, Alabama and Pennsylvania.

MaineToday Media, publisher of The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Coastal Journal, is in a partnership with WGME. In March, the media organizations agreed to share content on the air, in print and on their respective Web sites.

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or:

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