Three weeks before an expiring contract could lead to a television station blackout, Time Warner Cable is asking customers their support.

The cable company plans to e-mail customers a letter tonight saying they are trying to resolve a contract dispute with Sinclair Broadcasting Group, owner of Portland’s CBS affiliate, WGME.

“We’re working hard to negotiate new deals and we are fully committed to reaching an agreement without any blackout,” said the letter, obtained by The Portland Press Herald. “But, broadcasters like Sinclair keep demanding higher and higher fees for their stations – driving up the cost of TV for customers like you.”

Sinclair and Time Warner are deep in negotiations over the contract, which governs fees the cable company pays to Sinclair. In November, a Sinclair executive vice president and general counsel said the station was seeking an increase that amounts to “less than a penny a day per subscriber.”

If a contract is not reached, Sinclair could pull their signal from Time Warner.

Andrew Russell, spokesman for Time Warner, said pennies add up, and are passed on to customers.

“They are looking for huge increases. Why does cable keep going up? Well, here is one of the reasons.”

Russell said that Time Warner negotiates many similar contract deals every year, and that blackouts are rare.

“Most of these deals are settled in the last minute,” he 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.

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.