Will WUSF-Ch. 16's problem with Bright House hobble Tampa's second PBS station?
What may be most interesting about the flap that has seen Tampa PBS station WUSF-Ch. 16 removed from Bright House Networks' analog digital tier, is the way each side in the issue is blaming the other for the problem.
Callers to Bright House Networks have been told by customer service representatives that WUSF chose to be placed on the digital tier, where only customers with digital cable or a special tuner can see them. That's only half true -- WUSF was forced by Bright House to choose between airing one analog channel or all four of its digital channels in the digital tier. (I know some callers have been told this, because I was told this yesterday by a Bright House customer service representative.)
At least one caller to WUSF told me a staffer there said Bright House forced them to air on the digital tier. Again, that's not exactly true, either; general manager JoAnn Urofsky admitted to me that she chose to keep WUSF's four digital channels airing, unaware that up to 40 percent of Bright House customers don't have digital cable. "There was no good choice," she said Monday. "Digital is the future of TV, and we have to be a part of that."
All of this came to a head because of a national agreement between groups representing cable providers, PBS and the stations; it only required cable companies to air one PBS station in each TV market in both analog and digital formats after the switch to digital TV on Friday. So cable companies are deciding to limit secondary stations to one format, and WEDU-Ch. 3 is the primary PBS station in Tampa.
This has happened to two dozen PBS stations across the country. But WUSF, which could lose access to 40 percent of its audience at a time when the recession has already seriously impacted donations to public broadcasters, may be seriously threatened by this change.
Now, after getting a healthy amount of calls Monday and today from viewers, I've discovered a few things:
Bright House is making tough decisions: Given the amount of anger from customers over service outages last week and the week before, I'm surprised the cable company is willing to stick with a decision that could hobble a local public television station.
Bright House is using the circumstances to sell digital cable: Several callers told me the cable company is offering upgrades to digital cable service to those who want to see WUSF. But there is a cheaper alternative: a tuner customers can get for $1 which would allow them to see WUSF, WEDU and several government/public access channels in the digital tier. WUSF fans should insist on receiving this tuner, if they don't want digital cable.
WUSF missed an opportunity to prepare its audience: Callers told me they felt a little betrayed by DTV announcements saying viewers wouldn't lose channels in the switch to digital if they had cable service. I remember how both PBS stations mobilized audiences and donors to build their digital TV capabilities in the first place (WEDU alone spent $12-million).
If WUSF had taken time to educate viewers about the coming change -- the decision about staying in the digital tier was made in November -- seems that the disruption might have been minimized.