FL: Manatee gives up cable TV suit plans

Posted on November 29, 2007 - 7:49pm.

from: Herald Tribune

Manatee gives up cable TV suit plans

Bright House basic cable subscribers will need upgrade for county channel


MANATEE COUNTY -- When Bright House Networks decided to charge thousands of cable subscribers higher fees to view public access channels, Tampa Bay-area governments promised a legal fight.

These broadcasts, while hardly ratings grabbers, give homebound residents a way to keep up with local news and watch live public meetings. Charging more would be unfair, especially to the poor, officials argued.

The cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg filed federal lawsuits earlier this month to block the Dec. 11 channel change.

But Manatee County, also a leading opponent of the cable company's plans, is now backing down.

Here, Bright House subscribers with basic cable subscriptions, and no digital channel box, will soon have to pay for an upgrade if they still want their MGA-TV, Manatee's government channel.

Robert Eschenfelder, assistant county attorney, said a lawsuit could have proved costly. And a court victory would have ultimately been pointless, he said.

Federal law requires that all full-power television station broadcasts be digital by Feb. 17, 2009. That means televisions will need to either be digital-ready or viewers will need converter boxes to receive most broadcasts.

Digital technology essentially allows cable companies to offer more channels and provide more consistent picture and sound quality than the old-style "analog" television broadcasts.

Insiders liken the difference to that of vinyl records vs. compact discs.

Manatee's Bright House customers not plugged into a digital box by February 2009 then will have to make a change either way.

"Basically, by the time the litigation would be done, the point would have been moot," Eschenfelder said.

The Manatee County School District dropped its opposition to the Bright House change after reaching a new broadcast deal with the company.

Viewers will be able to view pre-recorded school district meetings in Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties anytime of the day by using the cable service's "On Demand" feature.

Bright House, Manatee's larg- est cable provider, with an estimated 85,000 local subscribers, announced in August it would move its Manatee government broadcasts from channels 20 and 21 to channels 614 and 622.

Bright House says the change will allow the company to make channels consistent for its 1 million customers in the seven-county Tampa Bay region.

"Bright House made the move, not only because we believe it's legally right, but because we think the move is in the best interest of the customers overall," said company spokesman Joe Durkin.

As lawsuits loomed, Bright House agreed in September to offer digital cable boxes for $1 per month for its remaining analog subscribers, those with cable plugged directly into their sets.

Those basic-service subscribers doing so will have access to 16 additional channels with the digital box, Durkin said.

Next month's channel change will not affect Verizon and Comcast subscribers in Manatee.

A new state law allows cable companies to opt out of local franchise agreements, pacts that give governments some input on cable company operations.

After months of negotiations, Bright House withdrew from a 15-year franchise deal with Manatee County.

Among other things, the agreement would have required the company to pay per-subscriber fees to the county. Officials estimate it would have meant $120,000 this year alone

( categories: FLORIDA | State Franchises )