Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Cox at the Council

I went down to the Lafayette City-Parish Council yesterday evening in order to watch Cox's Kleinpeter defend her company before the council. The council, or at least most of them, wanted to express their objections to the new lineup, the still-ongoing problems with the channel changeover, and long customer service waits. The story was covered in both the Advocate and the Advertiser, though only the Advertiser's article made it online. (Update 12:30--The Advocate article has now been uploaded.)

The Weather Channel:
For Lafayette residents the most meaningful moment occured in a defensive move before the council began its questioning: Kleinpeter announced that Cox was considering putting the Weather channel on the basic tier for 3 days prior to a hurricane using one of AOC's channels. Apparently this has been discussed previously with council members but the channel suggested was Cox's channel 22, the all ads all the time channel. Kleinpeter offered something vauge about "laws" preventing them from using channel 22 and no one challenged it. ...Honestly, there are no laws but there is Cox's desire to make money. --And putting a 24 hour shopping channel on the basic tier is apparently in line with what Klienpeter characterized, as she justified the inclusion of CSPAN, as Cox's policy to devote the basic tier to "important" public, civic, and local programing.

The council has clearly heard a lot from their constituents about the Weather Channel and that subject was the most intensely felt issue of the night for the councilmen. Stevenson made a formal request that the Weather Channel be on for the whole of the hurricane season. Cox isn't going to do that. What the community wants is to make is to return that channel to the basic tier and no on on the council even asked for that.

French Programming:
The movement of the sole French-language bit of programming off the basic tier was the second big programming issue of the night. This has been less of an issue than I would have thought given the high percentage of French speakers in Lafayette and Acadiana. But while French speakers might not write letters to the editor they do complain to their councilmen. Some rumblings of complaint were raised about why we get the "choice" of an entire digital package in Spanish but only one channel in French far up the channel guide. The only excuse offered here was that now Baton Rouge would get TV5 and that it would bring "parity" to Cox's channel lineup.

Parity=Be like Baton Rouge
"Parity"--the idea that offering the same channels in the same places to all their customers from Baton Rouge to New Iberia--was Cox's most consistent theme last night. It was the chief excuse for all the unpopular changes and decisions made by Cox. Unfortunately no councilman challenged it. It is obviously technically feasible to maintain the status quo...and in fact Cox complained all night about the difficulty of the changeover. Cox's chief reason to desire "parity" is not that it is somehow fair, as using the term 'parity' implies, but that it is more convenient for Cox since it wants to 1) have big regional support centers and not have to keep track of different channel lineup and 2) not have to have any messy complicating clauses in its contracts with suppliers.

As far as Acadiana is concerned "Parity" is code for "be like Baton Rouge." All the changes Acadiana objects to are to bring us in line with Baton Rouge. The price changes bring us in line with Baton Rouge. Pulling the Weather channel brings us in line with Baton Rouge. Moving the French channel up into the 200's will allow basic cable to be just like Baton Rouge.

The trouble is we don't want to be just like Baton Rouge. The council should give that a little voice.

There was a fleeting moment last night when the one councilmen raised the question of why Cox couldn't standardize on Lafayette and give Baton Rouge the weather channel but even that councilman did not follow the suggestion up. It should be a serious question. The weather channel was on basic in New Orelans and Lafayette--why not acknowledge the special issues that being coastal cities bring and make this a policy in all markets south of I-10? But that question was not even raised.

LUS
An undertow in the discussion all night was the upcoming entry of LUS into the market. Councilmen made only the most indirect of references but it has to be obvious to Cox that the council will have the influence to reach a very favorable "model" agreement with LUS when it comes before the council for its franchise contract. In the future that agreement will be a pattern that can be held over Cox's head. Currently the council has no real leverage between contract negotiation seasons. But with LUS in the business with a real local product (Expect things like the weather channel and French programming on basic!) both the market and the council will have more influence. Moving away from local programming and to a regional programming model at this moment is a mistake, I have to believe, and one that could only be made by a monopoly.

So it was a relief when a local resident stood up and made the point explicitly and dramatically. He felt ill-served by Cox and was angry at both the changes and the way that Cox had bungled the changeover. He said he'd been against LUS originally but would now switch over if LUS offered comparable programming.

Cox is burning bridges that LUS' presence in the market will make it very difficult to rebuild. Interesting times are coming.

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