Pondering next move on cable TV


By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent


Will Kearny renew its cable TV franchise agreement with Comcast when the current one expires in May 2013?

Nobody’s saying for sure but the company has a track record of longevity, having operated in Kearny since 1979, according to Charles Smith, the company’s director of governmental and regulatory affairs.

As required by state law, the mayor and Town Council held a municipal consent hearing to entertain Comcast’s application “to own, operate, extend and maintain a cable television and cable communications system in the Town of Kearny ….” on Nov. 7.

No residents spoke but Mayor Alberto Santos asked Smith if there were opportunities for a price discount for low income residents with the senior prescription gold card.

Smith said the company plans to continue to offer a 10% off option to seniors who participate in the PAAD (Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged and Disabled) program.

Councilwoman Carol Jean Doyle and Santos urged Smith to consider a new pricing option that would offer “some type of medium price,” as Doyle put it, or, as the mayor phrased it, an “intermediate package.”

Under the current arrangement, Doyle said, “you have to choose either the basic package or the whole enchilada. We feel there should be something in between.” Forcing customers to choose one or the other, Doyle said, is “unfair” because “most people who opt for the (more expensive) package don’t look at half the stations that come with the package. To get the few others you may want to watch, you have to get a premium package.”

Smith said Comcast provides “a lot of variations on how people can order services,” but none of those included “a la carte pricing or individual availability of channels” because “from an industry standpoint, it would not be cost-effective for consumers. It would end up costing more and would actually limit the number of choices because, without bundling, many of those smaller networks wouldn’t be able to survive.”

Asked about its current charges in Kearny, Smith said Comcast offered what he described as a “limited basic” package of $14.40 per month, plus taxes and fees, but noted that its “most common entry level” option is a “digital economy” package, available at $29.95 per month, plus taxes and fees. “Premium” packages vary, depending on the options selected, he said.

Santos said that based on anecdotal information he’s accumulated, the average subscriber pays “around $70 per month, including taxes and fees” for a basic package and that number would vary “depending on the number of TVs” in that household. “If you have your computer and/ or phone included as part of the package, it could be around $150 (per month).”

Asked whether Comcast had any plans to relocate its cable in Kearny, from overhead utility poles, to underground, Smith said the company was typically guided by the participating municipality’s requirements, as in East Orange, for example, where there is a local ordinance mandating the placement of cable TV lines below street level. Kearny has no such ordinance in place, Smith said.

As for service disruptions in Kearny during and after Hurricane Sandy, Smith said: “There were service outages throughout the state. And Kearny was no different than any other place (hit by the storm).”

Smith declined to say how many subscribers Comcast has in Kearny. “We don’t reveal customer numbers,” he said.

And a check with the state Bureau of Public Utilities’ Office of Cable TV (OCTV) disclosed that Comcast has filed a “motion of confidential treatment” on its current Kearny client figures. The last time such figures were available was when OCTV’s “Cable Facts 2005” reported that Comcast provided service to 8,250 subscribers in Kearny.

Town officials said they couldn’t provide a current estimate of subscriber figures.

What the town can report is annual revenues derived from its Comcast franchise contract. Since 2006, those fees have approximately doubled, climbing from more than $80,000 to about $160,000 for the current year.

The OCTV, which is designated by law to receive consumer complaints, has logged communications from 235 Kearny residents from Jan. 1, 2001, to Oct. 31, 2012. Of that total, 122 were inquiries and 113 were complaints, mostly about billing and quality of service.

After the state issued Verizon a license to offer cable TV service statewide, that company installed fiber optic cables in Kearny in 2007 and that year, began offering FiOS service in town. Verizon has also declined to release subscriber numbers to the OCTV which, since it began operating in Kearny, has received two inquiries and 19 complaints about the company.

Kearny has the use of a dedicated channel on Verizon FiOS which carries both a live feed and tape delay of Town Council meetings. Tapes of those meetings are e-mailed to Comcast for tape delay broadcast.

Santos said Kearny produces no cable programs of its own making. “We don’t have the staff to provide our own program content,” he said.

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