Houlton councilors grill cable firm officials

Posted April 13, 2010, at 7:07 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:30 a.m.

HOULTON, Maine — Town councilors, frustrated over what several said was a practice that is unfair to Polaris Cable Services subscribers, took up the matter with company representatives during a 45-minute discussion Monday evening.

No formal decisions were made during the meeting, but company officials told councilors they would consider all of the input presented to them during the session.

Councilors first raised questions about cable service during a meeting in February.

Polaris Cable provides service to 14 communities in Aroostook County and parts of Washington and Penobscot counties.

Based in Presque Isle, WAGM-TV is the affiliated station of Polaris Cable, and is the lone commercial television station in The County. The station is an affiliate of the CBS and Fox networks on 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 months, 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.”

During Monday’s meeting, several councilors said they had received more phone calls regarding this matter than they had on any other issue during their term.

Cathy Donovan, general manager of WAGM TV, said that a local broadcaster such as WAGM has the right to prevent duplication of its network signal. Thus, the station can lawfully ask Polaris Cable to black out programming.

The practice of blacking out programs that appear on other stations at the same time they appear on WAGM draws a larger audience to WAGM, Jon Gulliver, WAGM TV station manager, explained to councilors in a written statement. The practice not only protects the local broadcaster, it also protects local advertisers. Blacking out other channels during a time of duplicate broadcasting assures that local advertisements are seen by town consumers, he told councilors.

Councilor Sue Tortello said she had received many phone calls from residents irked by the practice.

“People are very upset about this, and they don’t feel it has been explained to them,” said Tortello. “And coming on the heels of a rate increase, this is a bitter pill to swallow.”

Tortello noted that Donovan had said Polaris Cable provides 52 channels under its basic cable package.

“How can you say that you are offering 52 channels if you are not offering them all at the same time?” Tortello asked.

Both Tortello and Councilors Paul Romanelli and John Fitzpatrick pointed out that the cable subscribers they have spoken to are particularly upset over delays 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.

Donovan told councilors that blacking out channels is a complicated process.

“We are doing it via a software program, and we do the best we can,” she said Monday night. “There have been errors, and we apologize.”

Romanelli also said that some viewers want to see commercials for businesses and events in the Bangor area, and they can’t always do that when a channel originating from that area is blacked out.

“Some people want to know about a garden show in Bangor,” he told Donovan. “Subscribers have a right to what we pay for, and we are not getting it.”

Romanelli added that he was “very upset” about the practice.

“You have irritated a tremendous number of people,” he told Donovan.

Donovan acknowledged that employees at Polaris Cable had taken “quite a few phone calls” from customers complaining about the blacking out.

“There are some things we can work on,” she told councilors, and stressed that the company will step up its services.

Houlton resident Phil Bernaiche was the only resident to speak about the matter during the meeting.

“I think this ought to be straightened out,” he said, adding that he did not want to hear excuses, but wanted the problems to be corrected.

Donovan also addressed Tortello’s statement about the rate increase. A rate increase went into effect April 1. Before the increase, Polaris Cable subscribers who bought the basic package were paying $47.85 per month. Now they are paying $50.25 per month.

Donovan agreed that the timing was “very poor.”

At the same time, she said, the company was going to address errors.

Despite the complaints, the number of Polaris Cable customers has remained stable, Donovan said Monday evening.

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