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FL: Florida County Joins Cable Challenge

By saveaccess
Created 10/26/2007 - 7:35am

from: St. Petersburg Times [1]

Florida County Joins Cable Challenge

October 23, 2007
By Barbara Behrendt

Hernando County commissioners Tuesday joined the chorus of other central Florida officials who are considering legal action to keep local government and educational programming on basic cable television.

Bright House Networks over the summer notified Hernando County and other governmental entities in their service area that on Dec. 11, public access, governmental and educational channels would be moved to the basic digital tier of the network.

The reason given was that Bright House wanted to streamline its offerings; subscribers wanted to find the same networks on the same channels wherever they were in the company’s service area.

For those cable subscribers without digital service, viewing the public programs, which in Hernando County are now offered on channels 14, 19 and 20, would require a special digital box, for a fee of $1 a month.

For those who would simply choose to move up to the lowest tier of basic digital service on Bright House, it would boost a customer’s bill from $48.49 for standard service to $59.45.

The change would also mean that instead of being found on channels commonly scanned through by channel surfers, those interested in watching a County Commission or a School Board meeting would have to hunt in the channels in the 100’s and above.

Commissioner Diane Rowden on Tuesday asked her fellow board members if they were willing to have the county’s legal staff maintain contact with other local government officials upset by the change. Just last week, the Tampa City Council called on the mayor to take legal action on the issue.

Community leaders in St. Petersburg and Manatee County have had similar conversations.

Rowden’s issue Tuesday was that the cable company may consider the $1 a month fee nominal but, based on figures she has seen about how many Bright House subscribers would need the special digital box, the company stands to gain as much as $4-million in revenue a year just from the boxes.

County Attorney Garth Coller said his office has been monitoring the situation and has been in touch with officials in other areas. The danger with taking the issue to court is that “there is no definitive slam dunk win” for either the county or the cable company.

Commissioner Dave Russell said he would not be willing to give the county attorney permission to join a suit yet. Instead, he would like to see the issue brought back to the board if it comes time to litigate.

Coller said he would not recommend that the board go to court if the benefits will be small. If another entity files suit, Hernando might be able to simply file what he called a “‘me, too,’ brief,” which would keep the county in line to receive whatever benefits might come of legal action.

Russell said he was fine with the county engaging in some “saber rattling” but would like to see someone other than Hernando take the lead role. Commissioners Rose Rocco and Chris Kingsley said they were hoping some sort of compromise could be worked out through negotiations rather than court.

Kingsley also suggested the county contact local lawmakers who originally assured them that the changes in the law that are allowing Bright House to make the channel changes were designed to lower costs to consumers, not increase them.

The point of raising the issue, Rowden said, was to be sure Hernando was in place to tell Bright House, “We’re not just going to sit back here and be quiet.”

Coller asked how far the commission would go in making a motion that could be used to set the board’s position when he enters negotiations.

Rowden made a motion that the commission was considering litigation to resolve the issue and Kingsley voiced some concern. “That’s beyond saber rattling,” he said.

“It’s pulling back the hammer,” agreed Russell.

The motion passed unanimously.

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