Gail Randle wasn't sure who to blame.
Randle, 57, called WUSF-Ch. 16 on Monday from her Clearwater home to complain that the PBS outlet was moved to Bright House Network's digital cable tier, because she'd heard station officials chose the move.
But when she talked to a staffer at the Tampa station, he said the cable company forced the move during Friday's digital TV switch.
Turns out, the truth was somewhere in the middle, as cable companies nationwide forced secondary PBS stations to choose between airing one channel in the analog tier or airing all their digital channels in the digital sphere. (Locally, WEDU-Ch. 3 is considered the primary PBS station, carried on both the analog and digital tier.)
PBS said about two dozen secondary stations have been affected nationwide. Elsewhere in Florida, Bright House also removed WBCC-TV in Broward County and WDSC in Daytona Beach from the analog tier.
But in the Tampa Bay area, dominant cable player Bright House Networks says about 60 percent of its more than 1 million subscribers have digital service; anyone else must pay $1 for a special cable tuner. And though WUSF hoped to work out a compromise Monday, the cable channel was not willing to budge from its position, fueling Randle's suspicion.
"I'm tired of having to pay for every little thing," Randle said. "Before (the digital TV switch), all we saw were commercials telling us, 'You don't have to change a thing if you have cable.' "
WUSF general manager JoAnn Urofsky said about 200 people called and e-mailed Monday to complain. An agreement struck in July 2008 between national groups representing PBS, its stations and cable providers requires cable companies to carry only one PBS station in both analog and digital in every TV market, though they may choose to carry more.
In May, West Virginia Public Broadcasting found itself in a similar predicament, allowing Comcast Cable to move its signal to its digital tier before realizing how many viewers would lose the channel. Two weeks ago, after intervention from the governor and other lawmakers, Comcast agreed to provide the needed converter boxes to subscribers for free over two years.
But Bright House spokesman Joe Durkin said the company is already helping its customers by providing a converter box for $1. "The dollar box is not a moneymaker for us," Durkin said. "This is about us taking care of customers."