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Feature Stories

Charter Drops Analog Signals

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 16

By Steve Propes

Charter Cable is hoping that shakedown problems associated with the now legendary conversion of broadcast TV signals from analog to digital five years ago do not repeat in late August when their Long Beach operation deletes all of its approximately 35 basic analog channels (one through 99).

According to Charter, about two percent of their customer base receives the analog signal, though some homes use both analog and digital signals, according to Charter Director of Regional Communications Southwest, Brian Anderson, “This is a project that will impact several thousand customers.”

When broadcast TV went digital in 2008, Long Beach’s Charter system decided to keep their analog signal while converting most households to digital. Currently, about 98 percent of all Charter customers get the digital service, thus most will not have to do anything. The basic analog customers will have to order and rent a digital converter, which the customer is expected to install. So-called “professional installation” on the part of Charter will cost $29.99.

“What Charter has done as a courtesy to our customers, is provide both analog and digital,” Anderson said. “In many cases, the same program was available in analog and digital. We will remove all analog in the systems, when we reclaim that space dedicated to analog, we can put much more digital signals into that space. We have been watching what the digital acceptance is among our customers. Nationwide, we’re at 90 percent, customers who have at least one digital device in their home. In Long Beach, it’s 98 percent. Less than two percent are analog.”

There is one fly in the ointment. Those customers converting to digital need to acquire a converter box, for which Charter charges a monthly $5.99 fee, an increase from $5 a month when Charter dropped 20 channels, a PBS signal, Headline News and CNBC from their basic service to their digital platform in February 2013. At the time, Charter did not allow converter fees to be waived. With the complete conversion beginning on August 20, that converter fee can be avoided, but only for a limited time.

Anderson explained, “currently customers on basic services are eligible for two free boxes for a two year period and if they qualify for Medicaid, it’s free for five years. The FCC does have a certain qualifiers attached.”

However, those who went digital when HLN, CNBC and other channels were dropped from basic earlier this year can forget about the free box offer. “The offer is not retroactive for boxes already on the customer’s account,” said Anderson, who said customers could contact Charter for “their eligibility for additional box offers in relation to the California All Digital project.”

In 1985, Simmons Cable bought Dimension Cable, an L.A. Times and Knight-Ridder-owned franchise, despite vociferous objection of Ninth District City Councilman Warren Harwood, at a time when the city had authority to grant or deny cable franchises. Simmons had to agree to not show the Playboy Channel, characterized as a “porn” channel. In 1996, Charter acquired the franchise.

In 2008, California Speaker of the Assembly Fabian Nunez engineered a Public Utilities Commission takeover of local cable operations, which allowed Charter to drop public access. When challenged at the Long Beach FIOS rollout why local control was being usurped, Nunez could offer nothing but a vague reply, but Public Utilities Commissioner Michael Peevey offered that he did not want the authority.

Promised competitive advantages were never realized; Charter basic service recently increased to $64.99 in early 2013, making it less than competitive with satellite services such DirecTV which is at least ten bucks a month cheaper with no converter fee, however Charter does not have a minimum subscription period as does DirecTV.

When a long-standing Charter customer called in to cancel service, the customer service representative offered a lower introductory rate to keep the customer. Whether that strategy to keep all customers is standard, or only applies to longstanding accounts, is unknown. A few days after the cancellation, a Charter crew was at a nearby power pole, detaching the cable.

Charter does offer some local programming, a public access channel and with FIOS, offers a city channel for city council meetings and the like and will resume the Charter Lounge Party, which had been cancelled with other local productions when the Charter Long Beach headquarters and studios moved to Irwindale.
Despite the converter expense, Charter hopes that completing the switch to digital will help keep customers happy. “By the time the project is finished in September, we’ll be adding 79 HD channels in Long Beach to a total of 185,” said Anderson.

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