By Ronald Grover and Liana B. Baker
(Reuters) - CBS Corp aired ads in three major U.S. markets this week urging fans to switch television providers before the start of the professional and college football seasons to pressure Time Warner Cable Inc to end a month-long blackout over fee increases.
The ads, which feature a much-anticipated matchup between star sibling NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning, are designed to highlight what Time Warner subscribers would miss should the blackout in those major markets extends into the rabidly followed football season.
The two sides have been at odds since August 2, when CBS and its sister Showtime premium channel were blacked out on Time Warner systems in Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and some smaller markets.
Analysts predict the blackout - affecting more than 3 million homes - will end around the NFL regular-season kickoff on September 8, as both sides fear a backlash from irate football fans blocked from watching the hugely popular sport.
CBS's ad, which began airing this week in the three largest affected markets, encouraged viewers to "tell your friends with Time Warner Cable to switch providers now, so they'll be ready for the games on CBS."
"They both realize that this was the big skirmish ahead of them, when TV viewers started paying attention after the doldrums of the summer," said sports TV consultant Ed Desser, a former top National Basketball Association executive.
The CBS ad included shots of the Manning brothers, who will face each other in a September 15 game between the Denver Broncos and New York Giants.
"It's Peyton versus Eli in what could be their last match up ever," the ad proclaims.
It also showed clips of the Alabama college football squad, which finished last year ranked No. 1 in the United States, and is due to play Texas A&M, which upset Alabama in November. CBS will broadcast the game on September 14.
"At the end of the day, CBS programming is just too valuable and CBS's sports lineup is too compelling for Time Warner to remain dark once football season starts," said cable analyst Craig Moffett of Moffett Research.
"Time Warner Cable will be taking a tremendous risk to let it get that close to the Manning Bowl," he added. "What has probably been a minimal trickle of consumer defections would turn into a torrent if it started to look like it might not be televised."
CBS is seeking an increase in the "retransmission fee" that Time Warner Cable pays to carry its signal, and additional fees for the cable operator to use its programs on its digital outlets. CBS gets added fees from other operators for the digital rights.
A spokesman for CBS had no comment. A Time Warner Cable spokeswoman said: "We hope to resolve this blackout as soon as possible, and to reach a deal that represents a good value for our customers. Negotiations are ongoing and active. They are not really tied to any particular game or program."
(Reporting by Ronald Grover and Liana Baker; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)