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Cable rates rising again

June 03, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

If you're wondering why your cable television bill is increasing again, the answer may be sports.

Antietam Cable Television, which serves Washington County, is raising its monthly rate for combined broadcast and expanded basic from $33.75 to $36 starting July 1.

With the upcoming increase, prices will have risen about 26 percent in two years.

The cost of programming is "by far one of our biggest expenses ... particularly sports programming," General Manager Gene Hager said.

Much of the increase can be traced to the cost of offering sports networks - especially ESPN, which charges cable operators 15 percent to 20 percent more each year, Hager said.

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A study found that it costs at least 10 times as much to produce and broadcast live sporting events as it does to show a drama series, ESPN spokeswoman Katina Arnold said Wednesday in a phone interview from the company's headquarters in Bristol, Conn.

Despite that, "sports in general (has) always been a compelling product," she said.

Arnold said a survey of cable operators ranked ESPN as the top among 40 cable networks for value and local ad sales for the fourth year in a row.

Clint Johnson, the general manager of Adelphia Communications - which serves the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia and parts of Washington County, among other places - agreed that increases in sports programming costs are the most severe.

"Painfully, that's felt everywhere," he said.

This month, Adelphia raised its monthly rates for a combined basic and extended package from $37.99 to $41.25.

Arnold questioned the premise that higher sports programming rates are driving cable company bills higher.

She said ESPN and the National Cable Television Cooperative, which represents small cable companies, agreed in March to a longer contract that cut rates. She would not release the details.

"We don't control the retail rate. They make a lot of revenue off our product," she said of cable operators.

But Dan Mulvenon, the vice president of public relations for the National Cable Television Cooperative in Lenexa, Kan., said, "ESPN has been the poster child for those high rate increases."

Mulvenon said cable customers can trace those costs to the sports leagues themselves, with owners paying players tens of millions of dollars a year. This makes everything else more expensive, including the fees that networks pay to broadcast sporting events, he said.

The not-for-profit National Cable Television Cooperative represents about 1,100 operators, with a combined 6,500 systems and 15 million subscribers, Mulvenon said.

Antietam Cable - which is owned by Schurz Communications, the parent company of The Herald-Mail - is one of the cooperative's larger members, with 39,000 subscribers.

As cable prices have risen nationwide, Congress has asked if certain channels could be broken out and purchased separately, but the industry opposes the idea. Arnold said it could kill small networks and force customers to spend an extra $4 a month per TV set for cable boxes.

In a letter announcing the latest increase, Antietam Cable included a chart showing that its prices are lower than those of other cable systems in the Tri-State region.

"We're $4 to $9 cheaper," said Cindy Garland, the director of marketing.

One exception - omitted from Antietam Cable's chart - was Tele-Media Co., which covers Hancock and parts of Morgan County, W.Va. Tele-Media's monthly rate has been $31.90 since December 2002, said Lea Fletcher, the office supervisor.

Garland said Antietam Cable is smaller than Comcast, Adelphia and other cable giants, but has spent money to keep up technologically, adding digital service and high-speed Internet access.

Also starting July 1, Antietam Cable is adding the Bravo channel to the expanded basic package. It will be on Channel 65, bumping Antietam Cable's local programming to Channel 19.

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