Thursday, December 16, 2004

Follow up: East Ascension, Cox, Eatel....and LUS

There is a new addition to the East Ascension parish/EATEL/Fiber story that we have been following from a distance. The tidbit is dropped in the Ascension Citizen in a story titled: "Cox, APTV working to keep local programming on air." That paper's style seems to tend to irony, and indirect speech. The actual story, reading between the lines, is that Cox has returned to trying to keep local programming off their network, especially local program that, horrors, carries its own advertising.

An earlier blog entry, "Cable controversy still not resolved," reported on Cox's attempted refusal to carry the channel if it sold its own advertising. The parish retorted that it set the terms for franchise agreements and that advertising was necessary to support local programming. The chairman of the parish's strategic planning committee said then that he is prepared to tell Cox Communication to "take their cable and leave" the parish if their do not agree to terms outlined by the council. Councilman Beiriger said he refused to allow a private company (Cox) to dictate "to us what we can and cannot do." Strong stuff. And in the usual circumstances a local government could never be so bold with their cable monopoly provider. (Suppose Cox were to fund an opposition candidate who claimed that you ran ESPN and HBO outta town? Cox could likely elect its own council in that circumstance.) What lends the parish courage is that EATEL, the local rural telephone provider, is even now rolling out its competing fiber optic-based triple play in the parish (and perhaps, eventually, beyond). The parish's telephone company can provide ESPN and HBO and so the council doesn't have to feel that offending Cox would be suicidal.

The current controversy, which revolves around Cox invoking an overlooked provision in the franchise contract that effectively eliminates the local channels ability to offer live broadcasts—for instance of parish council meetings. Cox moved its offices and claims that the old control mechanism that allowed the Ascension channel to directly control its programming isn't working. Apparently Cox wants to simply provide this service for free and has a friend on the council who wants to shut down council support of the local channel. Underneath all this, of course, is that when EATEL comes in both Cox an EATEL would likely be carrying this channel under similar franchise requirements and EATEL has stated they have no objection to APTV carrying their own advertising. If both cable franchisees carried the station a local advertiser could get the whole local cable market by purchasing with the local channel. Cox would prefer to eliminate that threat to its advertising revenue before APTV achieves that status. (This puts the cable-only channel in roughly the same position as local broadcast television that captures advertising revenues (based in part on cable viewership) independent of Cox. Federal law requires that Cox carry local broadcast programming. Cox sells local advertising on its other channels.)

All of this is interesting to students of Lafayette's evolving situation because LUS will represent here, as EATEL does in Ascension, a third player in what will be in most locales is an emerging war between two network providers, the phone and cable company. (We covered a three-cornered story in Ascension in October: Let the Price Wars Begin.) The three-cornered conflicts in Ascension may have something to teach us about our own three-cornered conflict and both our situation and Ascension's may well be worth folks elsewhere in the nation watching to see how a little disruptive local competition effects the phone and cable giant's behavior.

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