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Cable channel changes sales plan

TCI cable customers in North Pinellas and Pasco will continue getting the premium movie channel, Encore, only if they pay a $1 subscription fee on their July bills, company officials said Tuesday. TCI and its affiliates had planned to send Encore automatically to all subscribers. June's movies would be free, but beginning next month customers who didn't contact the company to cancel the channel would be billed $1 each month through May. After that, a subscriber might pay from $1 to $4.95, depending on other services.

A temporary injunction Saturday halted that sales plan in Dade, Broward and Seminole counties, where Encore was being offered by TCI-affiliate Storer Communications.

Tuesday, TCI officials based in Denver said they were changing Encore's marketing plan across the nation: If the subscriber pays the July fee, then he or she continues to get Encore. If not, the channel is canceled.

"This is in reaction to the concerns raised by the attorney general, as well as other attorney generals around the country, that consumers only pay for the service that they have subscribed to," TCI attorney Terry Bienstock said Tuesday. "If the subscriber does nothing, the service is discontinued."

In its complaint, the Florida attorney general's office said that the channel was being sent into subscribers' homes without their agreement, and that the strategy would lead to surprise charges on customers' bills. Other attorneys general around the nation were investigating the practice.

Lawyer Jack Norris, in charge of Florida's consumer litigation section, said that officials are pleased TCI has made changes but that they want more. "We're not trying to be hard-nosed about it, but we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars here," he said.

"If we let them take $1 out of every consumer's pocket, every Shylock in town will do it," Norris said.

State officials would like to see customers asked to sign up, for instance, having to check and initial a box on a form in order to subscribe, Norris said. "If they can do it selling steak knives, they can do it with something like this that's much more important."

Encore, which features hit movies of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, was sent last week to TCI customers in Tarpon Springs, Oldsmar, Dunedin and Safety Harbor in Pinellas County and Hudson, Shady Hills, Bayonet Point, Port Richey, New Port Richey, Holiday and Elfers in Pasco County.

Storer Communications has filed an appeal to the temporary injunction in South Florida, where it has blacked out Encore broadcasts to 200,000 people, Bienstock said.

Meanwhile, the attorney general's office is going ahead with its request for a permanent injunction in South Florida and perhaps the rest of the state, Norris said.