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Attorney general forms task force to study cable TV

Calling the cable TV industry an "arrogant monopoly," state Attorney General Bob Butterworth has recommended shorter franchise awards to cable companies and has set up a panel to study the issue. "The cable industry is a totally unregulated and arrogant monopoly that can put its nose up whenever it wants to and tell its subscribers "tough break,'

" Butterworth said Friday in announcing the task force.

The attorney general entered the cable television fray two weeks ago to battle Storer Cable TV of Florida, which serves parts of Broward and Dade counties, about its marketing of a new movie channel called Encore.

"I've had calls from over 100 cable customers around the state and hundreds of municipalities and counties, all with horror stories about their respective cable companies. That's why we need the shorter-term contracts."

Storer's intention was to provide the Encore channel free for one month to its 230,000 South Florida customers, then begin billing each account $1 to $4.95 a month in July unless the subscriber canceled.

Instructions for canceling the service were on a flier mailed to each subscriber. If the fliers were viewed as junk mail and thrown away, customers would be unaware of the unrequested service, its cost or how to cancel it, Butterworth said.

Broward Circuit Judge Lavon Ward temporarily has ordered Storer to stop marketing Encore. Storer's parent, Tele-Communications Inc., said Tuesday it would no longer use that marketing plan.

The announcement of Butterworth's task force brought criticism from several of Broward County's six cable-TV carriers, whose average franchise agreements run for 15 to 30 years. They said they face huge expenses and little understanding of their industry.

Butterworth said he is recommending cable TV contracts of two to five years because of the "runaway attitude" of many cable firms.

In the absence of cable-TV regulation by the federal government, Butterworth said, municipalities and counties would fare better by awarding short-term franchises because it would give them more leverage on cable companies' practices.

Butterworth said he wants his lawyers to look into a broad range of legal issues involving cable TV _ including ownership disclosure, the regulation of marketing activities, ownership transfers and taxation of franchises.

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