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MI: Comcast public channels go digital

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Created 12/10/2007 - 7:30am

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Comcast public channels go digital
Friday, December 07, 2007
By Dave Alexander with Chronicle News Service reports

Just like George Jefferson of 1970s sitcom fame, Muskegon area public access television channels "are movin' on up."

But unlike Jefferson, channel operators aren't smiling all the way to their new "deluxe apartment."

Comcast Cable Communications surprised public access television operators and its own customers by announcing it will move four channels from the analog basic service lineup to higher channels in the digital cable system. Cable customers will need to rent a digital converter box to see the channels.

The change is slated for Jan. 15.

It's a move akin to sending these locally produced channels to "Siberia," potentially eliminating hundreds of viewers, one West Michigan media producer said.

"It's going to hurt us," said David Mooney, director of MCC's television operations. "We are worried that a number of our viewers are not going to go and get a digital converter box. We worry that we will be losing a chunk of our audience."

The move will mean basic customers will have to obtain a digital cable converter box from Comcast to continue viewing the local government, education and religious channels.

Comcast is offering one free converter box per household for the first 12 months to help with the transition. Additional boxes will cost $4.20 per month.

Comcast officials said more than half of its customers in Michigan already receive some sort of digital service. They said more than 60 percent of customers get a digital service in the Detroit area but could not give a percentage for West Michigan.

Michigan Government Television will move from Channel 97 to 187, local government access from its shared position on 97 to 911, local education access of Muskegon Comcast public channels go digital Community College Television from 98 to 902 and local religious access from 7 to 924.

For now, analog channels 7, 97 and 98 will remain unused, cable officials said.

Bill Loxterman, MCC director of public information, said the college is working on improving its programming and better marketing the video services it provides on its educational access channel. "I think our improvements will be driving more people to the channel in the future," Loxterman said.

Local low-power television station WMKG TV-38 in Muskegon has already made the move from basic analog to expanded basic digital, now found on Channel 295.

The same public access channel move is being made on the Grand Rapids area Comcast system as company officials say it is making such moves, in part, to provide channel uniformity on its Michigan cable systems.

"I think it's unconscionable," said Laurie Cirivello, executive director of the Community Media Center in Grand Rapids, which also found itself booted up to the digital system. "It's a sad situation, and the process that has occurred to inform us and to handle the transition has been done very poorly from Comcast."

Those in the television industry say Comcast is creating more space on its system to provide an increasing number of high-definition channels. The analog channels take up much more "wire space" on the Comcast system than do the digital channels.

Comcast spokesman Patrick Paterno explained the reasoning behind the change: "We're now going to be able to provide enhanced video and audio by using an advanced digital delivery system."

Louise Beller, Comcast's senior director of public affairs and communications, said moving the channels is part of the ongoing transition to digital offerings. She said the company has no plans to drop other analog services at this time.

Comcast's move is not related to the Feb. 17, 2009, deadline that requires broadcasters to turn off their over-the-air analog signals in favor of their digital signals, company officials said. At that time, those who use antennas to receive their television signals will require a new TV with a digital tuner or a digital-to-analog conversion box.

Cable operators can continue to offer analog cable service as long as they choose under current regulations.

Charter Communications, West Michigan's second-largest cable provider, has no plans to move public access channels from analog systems in the markets it serves -- yet. Charter has cable systems in the Grand Haven and White Lake markets.

"We're kind of in this transition phase between analog and digital anyway, so I think eventually you'll see similar changes," said Tim Ransberger, a spokesman for Charter.

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