Cable changes irk some valley viewers
TimeWarner shifts channels, still negotiating with CW, NFL
Lou Hirsh, The Desert Sun
November 23, 2006
When he saw the notice that came with his recent cable TV bill, Kirk Gregory of Palm Desert was incredulous.
Effective Nov. 15, Time Warner Cable was removing 12 East Coast feeds of channels from its premium digital lineup, including extra versions of HBO, Showtime and Cinemax.
In addition, eight basic-cable offerings, including California Channel, TV Guide and Lifetime Movies, would be switching to new channel slots.
The basic offerings mainly stayed in the basic lineup and the pay-movie stations are now available via the cable company's On Demand service, which is already free to premium channel subscribers.
But the latest round of channel-changing irked Gregory - coming on the heels of recent events that have left offerings like the CW Network and NFL Network unavailable to local viewers.
"When I read this letter, I thought to myself, they're taking things away, but they're not lowering the bill or giving us something else that we want," said Gregory, 59, who has worked in ad sales at several Southern California TV and radio stations.
Local Time Warner officials said the changes reflect major shifts taking place in the cable industry nationwide.
Some are prompted by the ongoing transition of cable systems from analog to all-digital signal delivery.
Others come as cable companies are competing with satellite, phone and other telecommunications providers to offer bundled packages of Internet, telephone and TV services.
"We saw an opportunity to provide all of these through our own systems, and obviously we feel we can do it better than the phone and satellite companies," said Michael Bauerfeind, director of new business development for Time Warner Cable in Palm Desert. "That's a big reason behind the changes that our customers are seeing."
Bauerfeind said Time Warner notified its 150,000 valley customer households well in advance, with billing inserts, letters mailed directly to subscribers and recent newspaper ads.
"We've received very few complaints about this," he said.
Generally, Bauerfeind said Time Warner has been shifting some basic stations from high channel numbers to lower ones, with those above 75 generally reserved for digital offerings.
Eventually, all Time Warner systems nationwide will offer fully digital services.
Bauerfeind noted that nearly all of the basic or "advantage service" channels that saw their channel assignments change - including TV Guide channel, Los Angeles' KCBS and Lifetime Movies - remained in the same tier and will not see their availability or prices change.
In addition, he noted the company has added 11 On Demand channels - including Exercise TV, HD Pay-per-View and International Movies on Demand - at no extra cost to premium subscribers.
For now at least, the company has no major price increases on the horizon.
Instead, Bauerfeind said Time Warner is looking to offer more "a la carte" package offerings to blend different levels of basic and premium cable TV with phone service and various speeds of Internet service.
Packages would have a wider variety of prices based on services ordered. The company will be announcing new package offerings by year's end or early 2007.
Still other changes upsetting viewers involve national and local disputes among networks, stations and cable providers over carriage rights to certain programming.
For instance, valley cable viewers won't be able to see the Thanksgiving Day debut of prime time pro football on the National Football League's own NFL Network.
That's because several national cable companies, including Time Warner, Cablevision and Charter Communications, have yet to reach a deal with the NFL to carry its eight-game schedule.
And more than two months after its national debut, the newly created CW Network - featuring former WB and UPN shows like "Gilmore Girls" and "America's Next Top Model" - is still missing on valley cable.
That stems from an impasse between Time Warner and Gulf-California Broadcast Co., which operates several valley TV stations.
In the meantime, Gulf-California's over-the-airwaves KCWQ has been broadcasting CW Network shows on non-cable Channel 2.
Bauerfeind said the two sides are close to an agreement after several weeks of negotiations.
Bob Allen, executive vice president of Gulf-California Broadcasting, said his company is waiting for a written version of a draft agreement to arrive from the national headquarters office of Time Warner Cable. Allen said he hopes both sides can sign off on a final deal within the next two or three weeks.
"We were able to hammer out most of the deal points about three weeks ago," he said.
More behind-the-scenes changes are ahead for Time Warner in the valley, Bauerfeind said.
The company is in the process of converting its Palm Desert office into a customer service center, while administration and maintenance support will be housed in a new headquarters building under construction in Indio.http://www.thedesertsun.com/apps/pbc.../1003/business