On Wednesday, Southampton Town Councilwoman Nancy Graboski was taking a tour of the town’s public television station’s new facilities. SEA-TV has set up new studios on the Stony Brook Southampton campus where they edit footage from local events and town meetings and create programming, which is broadcast over channel 22.
But since September, many subscribers to Cablevision have discovered they no longer are receiving the public access channels from the town. Indeed, public access channels East End-wide seem to have vanished from the basic tier of services the cable provider offers. The loss to subscribers is a concern expressed in village meetings and local citizen advisory committees as well, including Sag Harbor, Bridgehampton and Noyac.
A few weeks ago the Village of Sagaponack received a letter from Graboski, who is the town’s cable liaison, regarding the removal of channels 20 and 22 from the basic tier package and analog format of Cablevision. This means cable subscribers with basic service need to upgrade to a higher level of service in order to continue receiving the two channels.
Graboski said in an interview this week the town is investigating the issue with the four other East End towns in order to force Cablevision to restore the channels to basic tier packages.
Graboski said that many people she has spoken with are confused about what has happened.
Â “I can’t make heads or tails of it,” Sagaponack village board member Alfred Kelman said during their meeting Monday.
“It’s hard to get your arms around the issue which unfortunately impacts our seniors and others on limited incomes much harder, since many can’t afford a higher tier of service,” Graboski said.
According to Graboski, the two channels were eliminated so that more bandwidth could be freed up and allow for more high definition channels to be offered. In 2004, the town and Cablevision signed a franchise agreement – approving the allowance of free access to both channels, according to the councilwoman.
However, Patrick MacElroy, a spokesperson for Cablevision, explained that 90 percent of subscribers would not be impacted by this change since they are not basic subscribers. The other 10 percent that were notified in the summer of the change were offered one free digital converter box, if they asked for it prior to the December 31 deadline.
Even customers with digital televisions are having a problem receiving the channels if they are subscribers at the basic tier. Graboski mentioned one of the town’s attorneys has been unable to connect, although she added there is a way of re-programming the sets to receive the channels.
According to Graboski, Cablevision attempted to rectify the issue by providing a “dumbed-down” cable box for subscribers with the basic tier packages so that both channels can be converted from digital back to analog and viewers can access them. But Graboski says that is not enough, because it will only work for one television per household. Further, Graboski argues that this solution will not help students in local schools who can no longer receive the channels in their classrooms and the same goes for those who are in hospitals and town hall.
MacElroy explained that back in 1972, when cable television first came on the scene, the FCC (Federal Communication Commission) mandated that public access and government channels be made available on cable systems. Those channels, he noted, have never been available on satellite or phone company provided television.
Graboski argues that its important for all residents to have access to the channels without additional cost or equipment, particularly because they are advised to tune into channel 22 in case of emergency, natural disaster or otherwise. She added that a similar matter has been the subject of litigation in Dearborn, Michigan, regarding another cable company, Comcast. The court issued a temporary restraining order against Comcast, pending an opinion from the FCC, according to the councilwoman.
Graboski said they are waiting to hear the outcome of the Dearborn case, and have considered legal action to restore the channels.
Representatives of the East End Towns met with Cablevision representatives one week ago, but she has not heard whether the company intends to meet the towns’ request.
Â “Our goal is simple,” said Graboski, “we want Cablevision to reinstate channels 20 and 22 to the analog basic tier… and we want Cablevision to replicate the level of service that we had prior to September 15, with reception on all TV sets in a household, with no added costs for subscribers.”