HOULTON, Maine — Still struggling with questions about the town’s cable service, town councilors have requested that representatives from Polaris Cable Services come before them to respond to their inquiries.
Company representatives are scheduled to appear at the April 12 meeting.
Councilors first raised questions about cable service during a meeting last month.
Based in Presque Isle, WAGM-TV is the affiliated station of Polaris Cable, which provides service to 14 communities, including Houlton, in Aroostook County and parts of Washington and Penobscot counties. WAGM is an affiliate of the CBS and Fox networks with the WAGM-TV CBS 8 (Channel 8) and WAGM-TV Fox 8 (Channel 9) stations.
At certain times of the day, Polaris subscribers can view the same show on both WAGM and on the area NBC (Channel 2) or ABC (Channel 7) affiliates.
In recent weeks, if a show playing on WAGM also is playing on the area NBC or ABC affiliates, then viewers see a blue screen with an accompanying statement on the competing station.
The screen states: “Syndicated programming that airs on this channel has been blacked out because of a request received by a local broadcaster in this market who also airs this programming. We are required to honor these official requests. To view this program, please tune to WAGM TV CBS 8 or WAGM TV Fox 8.”
Councilors said last month that they had heard complaints about the practice from cable subscribers. They wanted a representative from the cable company to attend a meeting and explain what was happening.
Gordon Wark, president and general manager of Polaris Cable Services, told the Bangor Daily News last month that the blackout practice had been going on for “about 10 years.”
As part of an agreement between TV stations and cable carriers, Wark said, Polaris has exclusive rights to syndicated programming in its market and has the right to block anyone else who is importing the same programming into its market.
Wark said that blacking out programs that appear on other stations at the same time they appear on WAGM draws a larger audience to WAGM. He insisted that the only thing that is new about the move is the blue screen with the statement on it. Before the blue screen, the blacked out station would just be a blank screen. The blue screen was implemented to explain what was happening.
Still, councilors said they were concerned about the practice. Several councilors said that they feel the company has had problems with the practice, mainly when there is a delay in removing the blue screen from a blacked-out channel. When that happens, regular programming is not resumed on the competing channel in a timely matter, so viewers miss several minutes of programming.
Wark acknowledged that type of an incident last month, when a mistake by a staffer led to the blackout of approximately 20 minutes of NBC’s afternoon coverage of the Winter Olympics.
Councilor Nancy Ketch said that she understands the blackout practice, but said that she feels the big issue is that the company is blacking out a channel and then “forgetting to switch back” to normal programming.
Councilor Paul Romanelli said that he had questions about the cost of cable.
“It seems like the [cable] rate goes up every year,” said Romanelli. He wondered if there was any language in the town’s contract with Polaris Cable that addressed the issue.
Polaris provides three tiers of service — a local tier, basic tier and digital tier. Senior citizens receive a discount on the basic rate. The price of cable has gone up off and on in past years. In 2004, basic cable service was $34.90 a month. By 2008, it was $43.40 a month. Over the years, however, the company has extended its cable service and added more channels.
Wark has mainly attributed the hike to an increase in programming costs. The programming cost is the cost that Polaris has to pay programmers each month for the channels offered. Some of those programmers have increased their fees “significantly” over the years, according to Wark. Hikes in the cost of electricity and gas also has affected the company, as Polaris must fuel the trucks it uses to maintain and repair cable lines.
The town benefits financially from the cable contract. It receives revenue from the cable franchise fee. The fee is the amount of money that individual subscribers pay to the town for receiving service. Councilors set the fee, which is now 5 percent of the company’s revenues from subscribers. Since 2005, it has brought in more than $30,000 annually to the town’s coffers.
Town Manager Doug Hazlett reminded Romanelli that there are options besides cable, including satellite television or watching over the Internet. Representatives from the company are expected to address all questions when they attend next month’s meeting.