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Time Warner will block channels free

What cost as much as $15 on Monday is free today for Time Warner cable customers.

Customers who want a fail-safe way to keep a channel from entering their home can request a "negative trap" that blocks the signal _ but only if they know to ask for one.

Once a customer requests the trap, the company is obligated by law to install a wire at no charge that blocks a channel from entering a home.

Time Warner has had the technology for 20 years, but the general manager said he did not think any of the company's 290,000 customers in Pinellas County has ever requested it.

By comparison, smaller TCI Cablevision, which serves 27,000 North Pinellas customers, has installed 25 of the traps for free, mostly for subscribers who do not want MTV. TCI tells customers about the option when they call to request a channel be blocked.

"It makes me a little mad," said Largo resident and Time Warner customer Elaine Cade, who paid for a box to block out MTV, VH1 and BET.

Cade does not want her 17-year-old son and his friends watching MTV. She has been a cable customer since 1984, and said she never knew about the negative traps.

When she called the cable company this spring to ask how she could block the networks she did not want, Cade said she was told her only option was a smart box, at $2.23 a month.

Time Warner will not disclose how many of its customers have smart boxes. Smart boxes are necessary for televisions that are not cable-ready, for all TVs to receive premium channels like HBO and for parents who want to block channels but retain the option to unblock them.

"Most people aren't going to know about a negative trap," Cade said. "It bothers me, but it doesn't surprise me."

Cade said she plans to ask for a refund for the box rental, which she now realizes she did not need.

Bob Barlow, general manager of Time Warner in Pinellas, said if a customer had requested a negative trap, it could have cost $5 to $15. However, the federal Telecommunications Act enacted this year makes it illegal for cable companies to charge for blocking a channel. The question is moot, Barlow said, because customers never asked for negative traps.

"No one was asking for it, so we weren't charging for it," Barlow said.

He said he was unaware of the new law requiring free traps on request until Belleair Commissioner Don Sprague brought it to his attention last week. Sprague failed in an attempt last week to get Belleair commissioners and the public to force Time Warner to offer stations such as MTV and VH1 as premium channels only.

Now that he is aware of the new law, Barlow said, he is spreading the word to his customer service department.

"Monday you would have been told it's a charge," he said. "That would have been an error on our part. That error stems from not having any experience. It's a recent change in the law."

Sprague called Time Warner's new approach a victory. "I feel that I accomplished a great deal because you now can get channels blocked on request without being charged."

Barlow said Time Warner sends annual notices to customers saying the company blocks channels on request. "Literally no one has ever requested one of these traps," he said.

Technology is not the best solution for controlling children's television habits, Barlow said.

"I like to think that most people would walk up to the television and change the channel and tell their kids not to watch the channel," he said. "That's what I do."