By REID TUCKER
Never doubt the power of college football as a catalyst for government action.
The DeFuniak Springs City Councilmen, spurred by complaints from local Bright House customers, grilled representatives from the cable TV provider at the board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 12. The issue: Bright House’s ongoing dispute with ABC affiliate Hoak Media, Inc., the owner of WMBB Channel 13 out of Panama City, and the resulting inability for many residents to view some of their favorite sports programming.
Councilman Mac Work, saying he makes near daily phone calls to Bright House about this issue, jokingly but succinctly summed up what the reaction from citizens has been like since WMBB went off Bright House in September.
“Right now we’re three Florida State games in the hole and two NASCAR races, and there is an 88-year-old woman that wants to watch NASCAR, drink a beer and smoke a cigarette, and she’s on my head,” he said.
Bright House Birmingham Division Vice President Scott Horne and General Manager Marva Johnson were on-hand at the meeting to explain the situation between their company and the network affiliates, which they described as a nationwide problem. Essentially, Bright House and other providers are allowed to retransmit content by the content holder only if cable providers pay what the content holder asks. A deal is usually made without much fuss, Johnson said, but content holders are recently and increasingly resorting to blackouts, whereby content or a even whole channel is made unavailable for retransmission, as a means of making cable companies pay more for the same service.
Johnson said the main tool affiliates use to gain leverage over cable companies is sports programming, and the customers are the ones who ultimately suffer the consequences.
“A lot of the network owners are, we feel, holding customers hostage around sports programming,” she said. “They understand that by denying us the right to retransmit their signal they’re putting you as a customer in a position where you’re missing valuable programming.
“They literally try to hold consumers hostage until we agree to pay fees that are, in our opinions, exorbitant.”
Thought the Bright House reps were not at liberty to disclose the exact amount of the increase, Horne did say Bright House was looking at a proposed 300-percent rate hike to resume retransmission of WMBB. That increase, far more, he said, than Bright House agrees to pay to other content holders across the country, would invariably have to be passed on to the company’s customers. He said Bright House views the standoff with Hoak Media as a fight for its customers.
“It’s a line in the sand, but it’s not just for Bright House,” Horne said. “We’re really taking a stand for what’s been going on around the country. We don’t like it. We’d love to come to an agreement. It’s the last thing we want.”
Councilman Mac Carpenter made a suggestion in no uncertain terms that Bright House ought to pay a rebate to all customers affected by the loss of their agreed-upon programming in the meantime. Horne and Johnson agreed to take the Council’s input back to their next meeting, but said customers who call are eligible to receive up to a $50 rebate if they call Bright House in the meantime. They also agreed to keep the City Council updated on the progress of Bright House’s ongoing negotiations, but it’s anybody’s guess whether or not retransmission of Channel 13 or another ABC station resumes before the upcoming BCS Bowl Championship Series begins.
DeFuniak resident Lee Thomas broached the idea that the city should install a high-speed fiber optics ring as a utility infrastructure available to utilities customers as a means of preventing future problems with local TV channels. He said such a move would not only help consumers, but could also potentially generate substantial revenues for the city if it rented out space on the data ring to media and internet providers like Bright House.
In other Council news, it appears as though the contention over the city’s agreement to purchase 31 acres along U.S. 331 from property owner Dianne Pickett is all but resolved. Per a proposal from Pickett’s legal representatives, the city will be paid $586,000 in two installments, the second arriving no later than February of 2014. The full amount will be repaid to the Florida Department of Transportation, which bought the land from the city in exchange for handling utilities construction as part of the ongoing U.S. 331 widening project.
By REID TUCKER