Cable deal wins BOCC approval

01/03/08 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Thursday | Listen to this entire show:

This morning, the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners voted 6-1 to approve an agreement with Bright House Networks, the county’s main cable television provider. Under the deal, the county would get $150,000 in free advertising plus $5,000 to “re-brand” the county’s television station because Bright House moved it from channel 22 to 622 on Dec. 11th.

With the move, many Bright House customers were forced to rent a digital converter box for $1 per month to continue viewing the government-owned cable channels. Rather than making a deal with Bright House, the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa are suing the cable company for bumping their government channels from basic cable service.

The lone vote against Hillsborough County’s agreement with Bright House was Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who told WMNF that while it may benefit the county government, it does not do enough for the citizens of the county.

“Although Bright House was at the table and negotiating and we got a better deal than the city of Tampa or St. Petersburg, I think we had the opportunity to send a message to our constituents. They said it wasn’t a business decision because a dollar per household was not going to make or break their budget or their bottom line, but I think rather than we getting some improvements from the county level, and we taking what people would perceive, whether it’s true or not, our constituents perceive it as ‘hush money.’ I, whether I can afford it or not, will have to pay an additional dollar per TV or per box, while the county gets $150,000 and $5,000, and all this stuff, and we can do all these different things.”

Commissioner Brian Blair said he had similar concerns, but he voted for the agreement with Bright House.

“It’s shocking. It’s kind of like the lesser of two evils. We had the opportunity at one time to ask for more PEG channels, to do a lot of things with Bright House, but we negotiated in good faith,” Blair said.

Ferlita said the county should have given up some of its perks in order to get a better deal for county residents.

“We could have negotiated better, I feel, and given our constituents something for free. … Now it’s going to be a matter – do I want to do that, do I want to afford to do that? We didn’t send the right message; we absolutely did not send the right message. And somewhere in between the two could have been a win-win-win. ... I just think we didn’t go far enough.”

Last May, the Florida legislature passed the “Consumer Choice Act of 2007.” The authority to approve cable franchises used to belong to local governments, that law now gives that authority to the state. Commissioner Jim Norman, who supported the county’s deal with Bright House, said his colleagues should have taken action when the legislature was considering that bill.

“You know what folks, we raised this issue when the state Legislature last year was taking up this item that they could take control and shift it out of local government. I screamed from the top of these buildings, ‘hey look, let’s get our legislative people involved or whatever.’ We didn’t take any action and you know what? The bill passed. So now they can take this kind of action. It’s their right; it’s their state law right. Now, the city of Tampa and St. Pete want to sue, whatever, you know, go have a good time. But the state law changed to give some authorities that they didn’t have.”

Bright House is the dominant cable company in the county, but Verizon also supplies customers with cable television. The deal between the county and Bright House includes a guarantee that the $1 per month fee customers pay for digital converter boxes will not be raised for the next five years, free conversion equipment for county government televisions and access to technology in the future that will provide instant polling and on-demand programming for the government channel.

Steve Anderson is an attorney with Ruden McClosky and is the local counsel for Bright House.

“Your goal and our goal is the same here, and that’s to provide service that satisfies the same people; your constituents are our customers. Let me assure you, Bright House Network is not going to do anything that makes those customers unhappy. It would be a bad business move, bad business decision, in this competitive environment; it would not make sense for us. So let me just start off by saying that Bright House calculates very carefully in any realignment or any decision like this what it is that the customers want and what makes them happy.”

But Ferlita disagrees. WMNF asked her if Bright House Customers wanted the government channels moved out of the prime location to a higher channel, requiring some of them to purchase digital converter boxes.

“Of course they did not. No. They would have been better postured to tolerate the inconvenience of them being moved, but this is not what they wanted. They’re used to turning it on to 15 for the City and 22 for us and that’s what they would have wanted. But, if there was some sort of a compromise, like you don’t pay for this inconvenience, we’re going to install it for free, then they would have been happy with that.”

But Ferlita assigned some of the blame to the Florida Legislature.

“It was not necessarily originated from Bright House or Verizon. It was our legislators at the state that decided they were going to take away some of the authority or power from local government and make this decision at the state. And I think that’s why, ultimately, both those other cities, Tampa and St. Petersburg, decided, ‘OK, well then let’s see if what the state does is trumped by the federal, just as the state felt that they could trump the local authority.’ It’s a bad situation. And Mr. Norman’s right, we should have argued for it before, and I wasn’t here, but it is what it is now, and if my gut tells me that it wasn’t the best deal for our constituents, no, I can’t support it.”

Learn more:

Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners

County television station (HTV22/622)

Bright House Networks

Ruden McClosky

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