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Bright House: Few people watch access

Thu, 12/08/2005 - 5:51am

Copyright 2005 Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Copyright 2005 St. Petersburg Times (Florida) 
St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
December 8, 2005, Thursday
By Louis Hau
From LexisNexis

TAMPA -- Eager to save money amid threats to its cable monopoly, Bright House Networks is lobbying to scale back on channels devoted to public, educational and government access in Tampa and Hillsborough County.

The only problem: getting government leaders to buy in. The city has rejected Bright House's plea to renegotiate its cable franchise agreement five years into a 15-year deal, and talks with the county about a new franchise agreement have been dragging on for months.

To back up its argument, the Tampa Bay area's dominant cable TV company on Wednesday released the results of a customer survey that shows most viewers don't watch access channels.

Bright House's push comes as it faces increasing competition from Verizon Communications, which launched TV service this week in Temple Terrace and plans to launch similar service next year in Tampa and other parts of Hillsborough County.

"We feel very strongly in light of market changes and public sentiment, that negotiating simultaneously (with the city and the county) is in everyone's best interests," Bright House spokesman Dan Ballister said Wednesday.

Last week, Tampa rejected Bright House's request to renegotiate its franchise agreement pursuing the company proposal to reduce government and educational access channels from six to three, replacing three of those channels with regular cable programming and eliminating a scheduled payment of about $ 1.5-million in 2010 that was supposed to pay for access programming. Bright House wants to make access programming available only to customers who have a digital set-top box.

Bright House also has been in talks with Hillsborough County to replace a franchise agreement for unincorporated county territory that expired at the end of 2004. The company wants to reduce access channels from four to three and has rejected a request from the county to increase its contribution to the cost of such programming.

In its customer survey, conducted in late November and early December, Bright House quizzed 300 cable TV households in Hillsborough County about their access channel viewing habits.

About 57 percent said they never view government access programming; 67 percent said they never watch the educational access shows; and 69 percent said they never watch public access programs. Half of those surveyed said educational access programming wasn't valuable. About 61 percent and 80 percent, respectively, said the same of governmental and public access shows.

Hillsborough County cable franchise administrator Greg Vawter said he hadn't seen the Bright House survey results and declined to comment on franchise negotiations.

But Vawter cited a 2003 county survey of 400 Bright House customers that concluded that viewership of access programming was strong. That survey found 49 percent of respondents watched educational access programming at least occasionally. Viewing figures for government and public access shows were 31 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

Mindy Snyder, cable television manager for the city of Tampa, said she hadn't seen the Bright House survey. But Snyder stressed that access programming continues to provide an important avenue for local governments and school boards to keep their meetings open to the largest number of citizens. She said public access shows give nonprofit groups and residents a means to reach viewers even if they can't afford to produce traditional TV programming.

Although Bright House's Ballister said the company is hoping to reach a compromise with the city, Snyder said the matter was closed. "I believe (access channels) provide a very valuable and vital service to the community," she said.

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