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The people vs. Charter’s pirate ship
by Andrew Barbano
Aug 09, 2008 | 1010 views | 2 2 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In meetings last week, Charter cable told local governments and their ratepayers to shove it. On Aug. 26, the Long Beach, Calif. bandidos will abort local public, educational and governmental (PEG) access television.

Should you be angry? Well, if you’re a Charter victim like me, you are being deprived of something you’ve already paid for.

The community television system has been built and operated by the franchise fee in your cable bills for almost 20 years. Now, Charter wants to charge you more money to see your own property.

Under federal law, community television stations are owned by the public, commercial-free and not subject to the whims of big advertisers or the politically powerful.

If Charter’s greed stands unchallenged, in nine days you will have to pay at least an extra $5 a month forever to see stations you will continue to fund whether you can view them or not.

Charter is moving channels 13, 15, 16 and 17 to the premium digital tier. You will need to rent a digital converter box to get them and unless you are a very adventuresome do-it-yourselfer willing to pick it up, you will also get stuck with a $29.99 installation fee for the privilege of paying the pirates their monthly pound of flesh. (This has nothing to do with the converters necessary next February for conventional TV sets receiving signals through the air. If your set is cable-ready and you subscribe to only basic or expanded basic, you will not need a converter box no matter what happens with over-the-air digital TV.)

“Hold on to your remotes, Washoe County residents!” drips a Charter mailing to subscribers. “We’re making changes to enhance your Charter experience.”

George Carlin, America’s puncturer of pompous-ass pronouncements, would utter all seven dirty words you can’t say on television.

Charter’s PR spin is that killing community TV won’t matter to many of its 75,000 Washoe County subscribers.

I sent the following memo to KRNV TV-4’s Joe Hart last week: “Apparently you got a dismissive statement from Charter that a mere 10 percent of its subscribers order only the basic tier. That’s both sophistry and subterfuge. Many more ratepayers subscribe to expanded basic. A lot of them were blackmailed into doing so when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed cable companies to redefine basic as they damn well pleased.

“Charter’s predecessor immediately moved a lot of good stuff out of basic and into expanded to force customers to pay more for the same thing. That dynamic is at work here. After removing public, educational and governmental (PEG) access, basic will include only over-the-air English and Spanish stations plus the following: Commercial channel 3; QVC and Home Shopping (undoubtedly good for open government); C-SPAN1 (CSPAN2 was moved to digital over a year ago; CSPAN3 has never been provided, although like its predecessors, it was established as a cable industry sop to Congress); TBS; The Weather Channel and TV Guide.

“All the more to drive viewers at least to the more expensive ($57 vs. $17.90 per month) expanded basic tier. Neither basic nor expanded basic can receive the buried PEG channels without paying extra for the digital converter box.

“Your use of Charter’s 10 percent lowball figure reinforces their spin that nobody cares, where, as Sierra Nevada Community Access TV (SNCAT) Executive Director Les Smith points out, surveys by cities and counties show that half or more of their respondents say they have recently watched PEG stations.

“A survey done in another market shows PEG viewing was cut by 88 percent when moved to the digital tier. I am reliably informed that cable companies in three other states have lost in court over just this issue,” I noted to Hart.

The motive is obvious: corporate greed by a now-financially floundering company that was taken public as a Wall Street stock hype-and-hustle by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen.

Charter’s local dragon lady Marsha Berkbigler told my cable consumer committee in 2002 that every community channel in this market was worth $1 million a year if shunted toward commercial purposes. Moving the community channels to the premium tier frees up bandwidth for a dozen new commercial stations. At 2002 prices, that means Charter can scam an extra $12 million a year at your expense. And the ripoff very probably violates a bushel of laws.

“Looks like the only recourse is to file suit,” I concluded in my memo to anchorman Hart.

Indeed, that seems to be the only chance we’ve got to stop this theft.

Even if Reno, Sparks, Carson City, Washoe and Douglas counties decide to go to court, we ratepayers cannot take the risk that they can or will act promptly. Legal action must be filed this week.

And that means you and me. SNCAT has no legal standing. Only ratepayers and local governments do and it’s too risky to wait for city hall.

I’ve launched a consumer organization to fund legal action. If you can afford it, go to to contribute via credit or debit card or send your check payable to U-News to P.O. Box 10034, Reno NV 89510.

An experienced attorney has expressed willingness to help and we can use any and all additional assistance. Even if we get all legal work donated, there are still substantial costs involved in fighting these horse thieves. Please help.

Almost 20 years ago, I served on SNCAT’s founding board to save the people’s TV stations from abortion at the hands of local government. Now, we have to save them all over again.

Calling or writing Charter won’t do any good. Corporate HQ in Long Beach has issued orders to all pirate ships in its fleet. Pushing local officials can’t hurt.

Stay tuned.

Be well. Raise hell.

Andrew Barbano is a 39-year Nevadan, editor of and former chair of the City of Reno’s Citizens Cable Compliance Committee. He hosts live news and talk (682-4144) Monday through Friday, 2 to 4 p.m. at Barbwire.TV and Reno-Sparks-Washoe Charter cable channels 16 (until Aug. 26) and 216. E-mail Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Tribune since 1988.
Comments-icon Post a Comment
Guy Felton
August 23, 2008
More applause for Andy!

Too bad the apathy typical of local citizens is such that we could not pull off legal demonstrations in front of each Charter officer's home. Legal does not mean polite in my mind. This fight needs to be taken to the hearths of the greedy bastards responsible. Within the law, they should be motivated to get the hell out of Dodge.

Guy Felton, Publisher


Guy F
August 23, 2008
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