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Dec 22, 2008 2:03 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Town may take legal action against Cablevision

Dec 22, 2008 2:03 PM

The Town of Southampton may take legal action against Cablevision if the company does not restore Public Access Channel 20 and Education and Government Channel 22 to its basic service.

Town Councilwoman Nancy Graboski, who has been leading the charge to get the channels restored, introduced a resolution at Friday’s Town Board meeting to commence legal proceedings. However, the Town Board held off on taking such action after Town Councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst suggested giving the negotiations more time.

Ms. Graboski’s resolution was tabled until the board’s meeting on Tuesday, January 13.

On September 15, when the two channels were switched from analog to digital format, customers without a digital television set or a Cablevision converter box were no longer able to access the channels. A 2004 contract between the cable company and the town provides access to those channels to Cablevision’s basic cable subscribers, Ms. Graboski said.

Since the September 15 switch, however, Cablevision has provided one free box to those customers allowing them to access the channels. The problem with that, in Ms. Graboski’s view, is the one cable box provided is only good for one television set. In order to have access on all sets the customer must purchase a digital television, upgrade to a more expensive tier of cable service or pay $6.50 a month for an additional Cablevision box.

“Clearly these options come with costs that have to be paid by the customers,” Ms. Graboski said. “Legal action is necessary. Ten percent of these customers are seniors and lower-income residents who can’t afford the extra box, and they rely on these channels for information, especially in the event of an emergency.”

Town Supervisor Linda Kabot said the town’s goals are clear: “Go back to the level of service prior to September 15 for the next three years or provide the additional boxes.” The supervisor added that her office has received many complaints about the lack of access and that people are feeling disenfranchised. “The contract guaranteed a certain level of service.”

Joan Gilmore, Cablevision’s director of government affairs, said her company had not turned its back on the customers affected by the switch, which she estimated to be about 10 percent of all Cablevision subscribers. “We are offering a free box to those without digital sets so that they can access the channels,” Ms. Gilmore said. “These boxes cost hundreds of dollars.”

Ms. Gilmore explained that the free boxes were given “per household” not per television set.

“We are not insensitive to our customers,” she said “But you are asking us to go one step further and address levels of consumption.”

Ms. Gilmore said that Cablevision’s competitors were already 100 percent digital and that converting entirely from analog to digital was necessary for the company’s business health.

The federal government has set a February 17, 2009, deadline for all broadcast channels to switch from analog to digital formatting.

Neither Ms. Throne-Holst nor Ms. Gilmore seemed interested in taking the matter to court and both agreed to sit down after the first of the year to work toward reaching an agreement.

“A lawsuit would likely cost more than the boxes,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “Perhaps we can set a timeline for a solution before taking this to court.”

“We don’t take legal action lightly,” Ms. Graboski said. “This is unfair.” The councilwoman added that she was upset over schools and hospitals that had multiple sets and were unable to view the channels. “They shouldn’t have to pay the extra cost.”

Ms. Gilmore said Southampton Hospital was on a bulk account and such service was structured differently. “We are in the process of restructuring their account now,” she said.

Ms. Kabot said other East End towns are considering legal action as well and that Riverhead Town has already filed a suit. U.S. Representative Tim Bishop, New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and New York State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle have urged Cablevision to return to pre-September 15 service, according to Ms. Kabot.

“Riverhead left us no room for negotiation,” Ms. Gilmore said. “It was either supply a box for every single television set or turn everything back the way it was before. There was no middle ground.”

Ms. Throne-Holst said she didn’t want a lawsuit to ruin the chances for a solution and expressed optimism that a settlement could be reached outside of the courtroom. “Our preference is not to have litigation,” Ms. Gilmore said. “There are areas where we can sit down and work out a solution.”

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I think Cablevision has been more than generous. Believe me I am not a fan of Cablevision as to their charges, however, if this had happened further west instead of the "Hamptons" they would not have given the complainers anything. Why should they get more than one box free, look at the program on that set. Stop whining, you should have gotten nothing for free. Who the hell do you people think you are.
By annamariacecelia (1), aquabogue on Dec 22, 08 5:59 PM
As I understand it, the digital conversion is for over-the-air channels (ie if you receive channels via an antenna on the roof or "rabbit ears") so that the FCC can re-allocate the frequencies currently used by television. It has nothing to do with how television is transmitted via cable. SO I don't think the Feb 2009 deadline has anything to do with this transition. I think this is solely Cablevision's decision. Second, I thought Cablevision/Lightpath/Optimum were all the same company, so I ...more
By diy_guy (101), Southampton on Dec 23, 08 8:44 AM
diy_guy: You are correct about Cablevision and Optimum. The story has been corrected. Thanks for pointing that out.
By Brian Bossetta (17), Southampton on Dec 23, 08 5:03 PM
Our public Access and Government channels (20 and 22) were removed from the basic service guaranteed by the contracts between Cablevision and four east end towns (Riverhead, Southold, Shelter Island and Southampton). This has nothing to do with the switch to digital TV and everything to do with violation of a contract that provided access to alternative news and public affairs programs and the ability to see their public meetings. Full discosure: I am one of 6 sponsors of Democracy Now! on the ...more
By Tony Ernst (11), Southampton on Dec 23, 08 9:02 PM
Who does Cable vision (the Dolans) think they are? By reneging on their contract they have limited the access to basic free speech only to those willing to pay. So now information that was provided to ALL cable clients is to be restricted to those with the bucks to pay. Remember carefully what AJ Liebling had to say “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” Do you really want to have what you are allowed to see controlled by the Dolan family? Please keep the pressure on them to provide ...more
By foodie (74), Remsenburg on Jan 3, 09 11:08 AM