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Cable operator puts Fox-less customers in game

Mon., Jan. 15, 2007

Time Warner Cable threw a football party for its North Idaho customers Sunday, and more than 100 showed up at Sunset Bowl in Coeur d’Alene to watch the Seattle Seahawks fall short of upsetting the Chicago Bears.

They watched the NFC divisional playoff game on television sets throughout the crowded lounge. And it was a satellite dish, not the cable company, delivering the broadcast.

The irony, like the cigarette smoke, hung in the air. But it was the right thing to do for Time Warner customers who have gone a month without KAYU Fox 28 in their cable TV lineup, said Jody Veeder, Northwest area marketing manager for Time Warner.

“I think it’s more important to bring the game to our customers, not how they get it,” Veeder said over the hoots of fans glued to flat-screen TVs.

KAYU pulled itself off the Time Warner lineup Dec. 14. For months the Fox affiliate has insisted the cable company start paying to include the station among its channels. Time Warner has argued that it shouldn’t have to pay for programming people can access for free with an antenna.

Time Warner has about 25,000 customers in the Coeur d’Alene area and 20,000 in the Pullman-Moscow and Libby, Mont., areas who aren’t getting Fox on cable as a result of the dispute. For subscribers who follow sports, that has deprived them of college bowl games, including Boise State’s underdog win in the Fiesta Bowl, as well as the NFL playoffs and Gonzaga hoops action.

And that is why Chuck Saxton of Coeur d’Alene was at Sunset Bowl on Sunday morning, cheering on the Seahawks. Saxton said Time Warner’s “customer appreciation day,” including free food and door prizes, was fine. But he would have rather stayed home to watch the game.

“If they appreciate us, they’ll give us Fox back,” he said. “As a nonsmoker, I really dislike the idea of going to a bar to watch TV.”

Virginia McDonald of Hayden called the party “absolutely wonderful.” She’s not a Seahawks fan but does enjoy Zags basketball. She showed up Sunday with six friends just for the fun of it. She attended a similar Time Warner gathering at the bowling alley in October, before KAYU split.

McDonald said she’s unhappy with KAYU’s decision, calling it a “dollars and cents thing” that she hopes is resolved without an increase in her cable bill.

She also supports Time Warner, which acquired Adelphia Communications’ business in the region in 2005.

“I think they’re getting the bulk of the blame because they’re new,” McDonald said. “Their PR is wonderful.”

Veeder said she hopes the disagreement can be settled soon, noting that highly rated Fox shows such as “American Idol” and “24” are starting their seasons. But she also said Time Warner has made four compensatory offers to KAYU, and all have been rejected.

“I’ve been in this cable business for 20 years,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Time Warner maintains that other local broadcast channels do not charge the cable provider to include them in its lineup. But KAYU General Manager Jon Rand has said most local cable providers and all satellite television companies do pay Fox 28 for permission to carry the channel.

Satellite dish installers have reported a surge in new orders in recent weeks.

Saxton said he would, too, if not for the five large trees at his house that would block satellite reception.

“If it weren’t for those trees, I’d have switched already,” he said.

Veeder acknowledged the cable company has lost customers to the competing technology. But those who switched to DIRECTV or DISH Network make up “an extremely small percentage of our customers,” she said.

She wouldn’t say how many cable accounts have been closed over the quarrel, but did say, “I think the worst is over.”

“It’s been pleasantly surprising how many people have stayed with us,” Veeder said.

That may be due in large part to a stopgap measure: the old rabbit ears. Time Warner has given thousands of its customers antennas they can use to get KAYU over the air. The equipment doesn’t work so well on newer flat-screen TVs, but most people still have older sets that can pick up the signal, Veeder said.

“We’re not giving up,” she said.


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