Asbury Park Press

Digital TV Is Boxing Viewers In

Cable companies require choices be made as analog fades; Verizon has an out

Asbury Park Press — Thursday, May 8, 2008

By DAVID P. WILLIS
BUSINESS WRITER

Howell resident George Kaffl is not a happy Cablevision customer right now.

Cablevision, the cable company that serves parts of Monmouth and Ocean counties, recently sent him a mailer saying he'll need to rent a digital set-top box to view shows on nine channels, including The Learning Channel, that he can watch now without one.

"It (the cost) is going up and up and up," said Kaffl, 67. "It is a way to turn around and say, "If you want to do it (watch the channels), you have to buy these products.' It just stinks."

He recently rented a box for one TV, but three other televisions in his house will not have one.

He had to make that decision because on May 20, Cablevision is cutting the analog feed of TLC, A&E, E!, SciFi, truTV, Animal Planet, Travel Channel, C-SPAN2 and QVC. It means customers will need digital set-top boxes to see them.

While Kaffl is getting a free set-top box for a year and an interactive program guide that gives him access to video-on-demand programs, his monthly cable bill will go up more than $11 a month once the promotion is over.

It's not just Cablevision. In March, Comcast told customers they would need digital set-top boxes to receive channels such as The History Channel and Cartoon Network. "It is likely that we will migrate more analog channels to our digital service later this year," said Comcast spokesman Fred DeAndrea.

Even Verizon's FiOS TV is eliminating its analog channels, which are seen by a small number of subscribers who don't have set-top boxes. Spokeswoman Heather Wilner said it will offer a free digital converter for people who don't want to upgrade their service and rent set-top boxes.

Cable companies say they are moving customers to their digital net-works to optimize the space on them. Eliminating an analog feed frees space for more high-definition TV channels, more digital channels and other services, such as faster high-speed Internet access.

"The recent push in the last six to nine months is to increase the high-definition channels," said Mike Paxton, a principal analyst at In-Stat, a research firm. "It is a point of leverage that the satellite and (telecommunications) TV service providers (such as Verizon) are using on cable operators, and it is having a little bit of an impact."

Running a risk

But it risks angering customers, who until now have not needed to get a cable box, he said. "They (cable providers) have gotten to a tipping point where it makes more sense financially and operationally" to discontinue analog feeds.

Cablevision spokesman Jim Maiella says more than 84 percent of its customers have digital boxes, the highest percentage in the cable industry. Nearly 75 percent of Comcast's customers in northern New Jersey have digital cable, DeAndrea said.

"Cablevision carries virtually all of the programming we offer in a digital format, and over the last few years we have been eliminating the duplicate analog feeds of some channels, as our customer base has become predominantly digital and the entire nation transitions to digital television," Cablevision said in a statement.

The company still offers more than 60 analog channels, including cable networks and local broadcast stations, that viewers don't need a cable box to see, Cablevision said.

The channel changes come at a busy, yet confusing time, for TV watchers. Consumers are being bombarded with advertisements and information about the so-called digital television switch, which is coming on Feb. 17.

But the recent channel changes by cable companies is different.

Next February, under a mandate from the Federal Communications Commission, broadcasters, including the New York City broadcast television stations, will switch off their analog transmissions.

That change only affects customers who receive their television programs via an over-the-air antenna, whether it is on the TV set or on top of the house. They will need to buy digital converter boxes to translate the signal from digital to analog. (The federal government has a program that offers residents two $40 coupons to help pay for the boxes.)

Nothing to do

If you receive your broadcast channels, such as WNBC Channel 4 or WABC Channel 7, via cable or other video provider, you don't need to do anything. They will continue to provide a feed to your TV. People with a digital TV that includes a digital tuner don't need to make any changes either.

But if you are a cable customer and are seeing your favorite cable channels move to digital, you need to rent a box if you want to keep watching them.

Brick resident Sal Loffredo said he won't rent a box from Comcast.

"I don't think it's right what they did," Loffredo said. "I'll survive with what I've got so far."

Loffredo said he has four televisions in the house.

"They took this opportunity, I think, to jack us up in here," he said. "Now if you want those channels, you have to buy the box and pay X amount of dollars a month."

DeAndrea said a cable box rents for $1 to $1.35 a month, depending on the customer's level of service. Additional boxes cost $3.95 each.

No upgrade needed

Cablevision and Comcast both said customers do not need to upgrade their cable package to watch the channels. "They only need a digital box to continue enjoying those channels," DeAndrea said. Maiella said Cablevision customers who get the boxes also can watch other channels in the family service digital tier, such as Turner Classic Movies, Game Show Network and 48 Music Choice Channels.

Jim Walsh, program director at consumer group New Jersey Citizen Action, said the move by cable companies hits low-income households the most.

"This seems like a ploy by the cable companies to get households to pay more for a service they are already receiving," Walsh said.

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