FL: Leaders fight move of government channels to upper end of cable TV dial

Posted on February 2, 2008 - 8:31am.

from: Orlando Sentinel

Leaders fight move of government channels to upper end of cable TV dial

David Damron
Sentinel Staff Writer
February 1, 2008

Orange County Commissioner Teresa Jacobs is launching a statewide fight to stop cable companies from pushing government channels to the higher reaches of their digital-channel lineups.

Jacobs, head of the Florida Association of Counties, wants her group to battle a national trend of moving public channels onto what critics call the "second class" tier of the dial.

Orange TV, which airs county, city and School Board meetings, moved from channel 9 to 199 earlier this month on Bright House Networks. The change was part of a programming shuffle that also rolls out new channels today.

Other cable companies across the region and state are making similar moves.

People "are far more likely to tune in when it's in the lower channels," said Jacobs, adding that some residents actually have stumbled onto issues important to them while channel surfing. "We ought to guard that."

Bright House and other companies across the country are rolling out new lineups to comply with a federally mandated move to digital programming in 2009.

But some are using the switchover to free up lower channels for new offerings. That's pushing public, educational and government programming to the hinterland of the dial where few surfers roam, critics say.

Viewers who don't have digital TVs or packages at home must lease new converter boxes for $1 a month to reach the upper channels. Bright House, which is raising its standard service rates by 4.3 percent in March, says most of its customers already have the boxes.

Bright House spokeswoman Sara Brady said the move will help Orange TV attract new viewers since it's now packaged with C-Span channels that feature programming about the federal government. Brady also challenged the notion that channel surfers won't find government TV on the higher channel.

"Channel surfing takes place up and down the entire dial," Brady wrote in an e-mail. "It's not limited to basic [lower channels]."

"We're moving it to a place where more people will see it," Brady said. "This is really going to be terrific."

Others disagree. Tampa and St. Petersburg recently filed lawsuits to stop the move. And judges in Michigan blocked similar moves there.

Comcast Corp. company officials apologized Tuesday to a congressional committee for how it handled the move of public programming in Michigan, where it was shifted to the 900 channels.

Brady said Florida law allows the channel switches, unlike in Michigan, and that Orange County leaders agreed to a possible move in its latest franchise deal.

Regardless, Jacobs said, Orange and the state's other 66 counties should consider blocking it in court or lobbying lawmakers to change the law.

Windermere Mayor Gary Bruhn said he plans to write Bright House to oppose the move after the Orange County Council of Mayors voted to challenge it Monday, saying it hurts civic involvement.

Orange County Commissioner Linda Stewart planned to write Bright House to say she's "intensely disturbed" by the move. Others are equally critical.

"Moving that channel is a severe blow to civic involvement and good government in Orange County," said Linda Chapin, a former county mayor and now a University of Central Florida director who hosts a show on Orange TV.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and County Mayor Rich Crotty have not publicly opposed the switch, but they are helping to publicize it.

Crotty isn't happy about the move, a spokesman said. But he is appearing in public service announcements for Bright House that explain how to get a converter box. Dyer has posted a similar announcement on the city's Web site.

"We're just watching the Michigan case," Crotty spokesman Steve Triggs said.

David Damron can be reached at ddamron@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-3511.

( categories: FLORIDA | State Franchises )