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Time Warner turns off customers // CABLE CONSTERNATION

Marie Bruggemann is an 80-year-old widow whose husband died almost a year ago. She suffers from diabetes and hip trouble. She has no family living nearby.

The Spring Hill woman passes her evenings watching Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne films on the cable television station American Movie Classics.

"That is my company," said Bruggemann, a retired inspector for the McGregor shirt factory in New Jersey. "I like mysteries, something with a story to it." She said she likes the old movies channel because "it's much cleaner than the others."

On Jan. 1, Time Warner Communications shuffled its channel lineup and made AMC an a la carte channel, which costs an extra $1.50, or $2.97 if purchased along with superstations WGN and WTBS.

"Now they make you pay extra for that," Bruggemann complained. The Disney Channel, which Time Warner converted from a premium service to part of its standard package, is of little use to Bruggemann.

"They think they were doing me a big favor," said Bruggemann, who voiced her complaints recently to the Hernando County Commission, which oversees Time Warner's franchise agreement. She also resents having to pay nearly $30 a month for a service that cost about $12 a decade ago.

"They give me a lot of channels I don't use or don't want," she said. "If I could change it, I would change it. But I guess I have to keep this and be stuck with it."

Bruggemann is not alone in her dissatisfaction with Time Warner, the primary cable provider in Hernando County and a large part of the Tampa Bay area.

Since the company increased its rates and changed its channel lineup last month, irate customers have flooded county offices with letters and phone calls. The complaints come at a bad time for the company, which is renegotiating its franchise agreement with the county. A franchise agreement is a contract that lets the company operate in the county in return for a fee or other in-kind services.

Time Warner's franchise is non-exclusive, meaning another company may come in at any time, strike its own franchise deal and offer cable service.

So far, none has stepped forward to challenge Time Warner.

Complaints have been numerous enough to capture the attention of county commissioners. They have scheduled a public hearing for 5 p.m. Thursday at the Hernando County Fairgrounds to let residents speak out. Time Warner representatives have been invited to attend.

"I think they ought to come, and I think they ought to bring bodyguards with them," Commissioner Bobbi Mills said at a recent meeting when the hearing was scheduled.

"We're being taken'

No one knows better just how angry folks are than Millie Latwinas. She answers the county's main telephone number, the same one that is printed on cable customers' bills.

"I should get paid by Time Warner," said Latwinas, who fielded at least 161 complaints between Dec. 18 and Jan. 27.

According to a log Latwinas keeps in her computer, most of the complaints are similar: limited channel offerings, bad reception, high rates, lousy customer service. Residents have also noticed that Time Warner executives offer more channels in other Tampa Bay counties. Many residents say that a franchise agreement of 15 years, which Time Warner executives are pushing for, is too long.

"I think we're being taken," said Eugene Fontana, a retired ceramics engineer living in the Seven Hills area. He said a friend who lives in Clearwater, where there is competition with GTE, gets more channels for less money.

Kevin Hyman thinks the ruckus is being blown out of proportion.

The Time Warner vice president says a lot of the complaints stem from a lack of understanding about how cable television is regulated.

Besides, he says, plenty of the county's 33,000 customers are satisfied.

"We've had a lot of people call us who are pleased with their service," said Hyman, noting the addition of 10 channels, including the Disney Channel, which was added to the standard package. "Ninety percent are thrilled that we're offering 10 channels. But they don't call the county and write letters to the editor."

Time Warner's rates are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission until 1999, unless competition arrives in the area sooner, according to the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The federal law undoes the heavy regulations of a 1992 law. Instead, it opens the market to competition, mainly from telephone companies, which previously were barred from offering cable service but successfully challenged the ban in court.

Benchmark rates were set in 1992 after the first law passed. At that time, rates for each service area were determined by a complicated formula that took into account such factors as median incomes and a cable system's channel capacity. That is why west Hernando residents pay slightly more today than their eastern neighbors.

"Eventually we hope to get those the same," Hyman said, adding that the company probably would adjust to the lower rate. He also wants to give both communities the same channel offerings. Now, they are slightly different, and west Hernando gets one more channel than east Hernando.

The FCC lets companies increase rates to adjust for inflation, to recoup increased costs passed on by programers and to pay for system upgrades, said Morgan Broman, a spokesman for the FCC's cable services bureau. The new law also lets cable companies increase rates by $1 a month each year until 1999 to build a capital fund for equipment.

"If ESPN goes up 5 cents a subscriber, then bills will go up 5 cents a subscriber," Hyman said. Many customers do not realize, he said, that Time Warner must pay ESPN and other programers a fee to add the stations to its lineup.

Some problems inherited

One reason for the limited channel choices lies with the previous cable provider, Centel Corp., Hyman said. Time Warner's channel capacity was limited in Hernando because it inherited an antiquated copper-wire system when it bought the company in 1989.

The company has been working steadily to upgrade the system, Hyman said.

Rates have risen as the company adds more fiber-optic cable, which improves picture quality and increases channel capacity, he said.

Last year, the upgrades made it possible to add a few more channels. More work on the system _ about a $1-million investment _ allowed the company to offer 10 more this year.

The company hopes to upgrade the system over the next three years to increase capacity to 78 channels.

"We're a Chevy, but we're trying to become a Cadillac," Hyman said.

He said complaints about service interruptions reached a peak last year while the work was being done.

"It had to get a little worse before it got better," he said. "That's the nature of an upgrade."

Hyman estimates that the company will invest $45-million upgrading the Hernando system.

That's the reason Time Warner wants a 15-year franchise, so it can recoup its investment, Hyman says.

"Would you want to make such a large investment if you were always up for renewal?" he said.

As for complaints about American Movie Classics being made an a la carte offering, Hyman said a company study showed that 80 percent of those who were receiving a standard package were buying a superstation package anyway. So executives figured that moving AMC to the superstation package would affect the fewest people.

By offering some stations a la carte, Time Warner would be keeping rates lower for customers who do not want those stations.

"If we offered them in a standard package, the rates would have to be higher," Hyman said.

Customer service is one area that concerns Hyman.

Many residents have complained to county officials about the constant busy signal they get when they try to reach Time Warner via its toll-free customer-service telephone number.

One man reported to the county that he tried for several months to cancel his dead father's account.

"They kept billing him," said county administrative assistant Brenda Frazier. She contacted a Time Warner executive, who got the problem resolved.

"Stories like that infuriate me," said Hyman, who said it was the first time he had heard about the man's problem.

Hyman said the company has added telephone capacity and is adding employees to answer calls.

"We're training them as quickly as we can," he said.

Hyman said he and other Time Warner executives probably will attend Thursday's public hearing but will not have much to say.

"We're going to be there to listen," he said.

Not much county can do

William Buztrey is feeling frustrated.

As Hernando's assistant county attorney, he is handling the negotiations for the new franchise agreement. Frazier, who is helping him, is equally stressed.

Both realize that the county has little leeway when it comes to Time Warner.

"There's not much the county can control," Frazier said.

Forget about rates. Those are regulated by the FCC, although county officials did pass along customer complaints to the regulatory agency.

Forget about channel offerings. Those fall under Time Warner's discretion.

What the county can do is push for concessions such as a shorter franchise period or extra services.

High on county commissioners' lists is live broadcasts of their weekly meetings. Now, the company videotapes the meetings with a camera attached to a wall at the back of the chamber. The tapes are aired each Saturday morning after Tuesday's meeting.

"Very, very soon we need a government access channel," Commissioner Pat Novy said. "Not three years down the line."

She agrees with residents that a 15-year franchise is too long.

With the way Time Warner has treated Hernando customers, Novy said, "they're going to be lucky if they get five."

County officials want a channel that would air programs to educate people about such things as when and how to get a building permit. Officials also could use the channel to get disaster information to people quickly.

Another item on the wish list is an upgrade of the microwave system that links the county jail and the courthouse for bail hearings, as well as a link between the jury room and the County Commission chamber so overflow crowds could participate without having to move meetings to the fairgrounds.

Time Warner officials have been tight-lipped about the proposals. County officials say Time Warner executives would rather negotiate those agreements outside the franchise deal, with the county footing the bill.

Hyman said he thinks some sort of deal could be worked out, especially if the county agrees to the 15-year franchise.

Though Hernando officials may feel helpless, officials elsewhere have fought Time Warner and won.

In Laredo, Texas, the city got Time Warner to agree to a franchise deal that included a $15-million upgrade of the Laredo system; $750,000 in public, educational and governmental access funding; a $1-million institutional network; free voice, video and data service for the city over the Internet until 2005; and a promise that any technological improvements made for similar-size Time Warner systems would also be made in Laredo.

Laredo officials got so much because they sued Time Warner as it tried to take over another cable company over the city's objections. The concessions were negotiated as part of an out-of-court settlement.

Hernando County officials might not have a lawsuit to use as leverage, but they know what the key is to getting what they and customers want: competition.

Take the city of Clearwater.

After GTE began providing an alternative to Time Warner last year, both companies gave the city grants for equipment, said Jeff Harper, the city's spokesman. Time Warner also gave the city nine hours per week of technical assistance, plus the use of a van three times a year.

But no competitor has plans to come to Hernando, at least for the time being.

That leaves Commissioner Paul Sullivan unsure what to do.

"If we don't renew the franchise," he said, "then do we just not have cable?"

_ Times researcher Carolyn Hardnett contributed to this report, which includes information from Multichannel News and Times files.

To express

your opinion . . .

The Hernando County Commission has scheduled a public hearing for 5 p.m. Thursday to allow residents to comment on Time Warner Communications' request to extend its cable television franchise agreement with the county. Because a large crowd is expected, the hearing will take place in McKethan Auditorium at the Hernando County Fairgrounds, on U.S. 41 on the south side of Brooksville. Executives of Time Warner have been invited. Anyone who wants to speak will be allowed to do so.

Hernando short-circuited

Time Warner Communications offers several channels on its cable systems in the Tampa Bay area that Hernando County subscribers do not get. These channels are offered in various locations in Hillsborough and/or Pinellas counties.:

Bravo

CNN fn

C-SPAN2

E!

ESPN2

Food

fX

Home/Garden

Home Shoppng 2

MOR Music

NewsTalk TV

Nostalgia

Sci-Fi

Sports Channel

STARZ!

Trinity

Comparing prices and service

Here is what Time-Warner cable customers pay for "standard" service in various locations and the number of channels they receive. Standard service does not include a la carte channels or any premium services. Prices include sales tax and franchise fees.

City of Brooksville: $28.01 (40 channels)

East Hernando: $27.40 (40 channels)

West Hernando: $28.23 (40 channels)

City of Tampa: $29.99 (54 channels)

Hillsborough/Fibertech: $33.93 (54 channels)

Hillsborough/Newtech: $32.53 (50 channels)

Pinellas Park: $29.08 (70 channels)

Source: Time Warner Communications

Angry cable subscribers speak out

"Time Warner giveth and Time Warner taketh away; they've pulled the plug on 'American Movie Classics' and added "Disney' (ho-hum) and something called "Enplex' (an unknown quantity). I've suspected for some time now that FCC is an acronym for F_- Cable Customers!"

_ MARY AIKEN, SPRING HILL

"While it was reasonable to give a monopoly franchise originally in order to make it profitable to start the system, we are now due for some competition. Either by letting anyone in who may be interested or by putting the entire system out for bids."

R.E. BURRY, SPRING HILL

"Since January 1995, my bills have increased about 40 percent with no extras. You have, at the same time, eliminated favorite channels and added other unwanted channels. ... What would be good is a menu where we can pick our channels at a fair price."

RUTH J. MCHALLAN, SPRING HILL

"I had Time Warner in Queens County, N.Y., and was very satisfied. Here you are just taking advantage of your customers and driving us to a mini dish."

_ CHARLES B. WHITE, SPRING HILL

"We should attempt to invite one or more cable companies or wannabees to make a proposals for cable service now in order to get rid of Time Warner."

_ R.G. GRAETER, SPRING HILL

HERNANDO TIME WARNER CHANNEL OFFERINGS

EAST HERNANDO

Standard package

WEDU

WFLA

WTSP

WTVT

WCLF

WFTS

WWWB

WTTA

WTOG

Arts & Entertainment

Animal Planet

BET

CNN

CNN Headline News

Comedy Central

Court TV

C-SPAN

Discovery/VH1

Disney

ESPN

Eternal World Network/Odyssey

Family

Golf

Mind Extension University/ Hernando Schools

WBHS-Home Shopping

Learning

Lifetime

MTV

MSNBC-news

Nashville

Nickelodeon

Encore-plex!

Prevue

QVC

The Sunshine Network/CNBC

TNT

Travel/The Nashville Network

USA

Weather Channel

A la carte superstation package

TBS

WGN

AMC

Choice access

Turner Classic Movies

The History Channel

Premium services

Showtime

Home Box Office

HBO Multiplex

Cinemax

Pay-per-view

four Home Theatre channels

WEST HERNANDO

Standard package

WCLF

WEDU

WTOG

WBHS-Home Shopping

WFLA

WUSF

WTSP

WFTS

WWWB

WTVT

Mind Extension University/ Hernando Schools

Prevue

CNN Headline News

CNN

Weather Channel

Nashville

Family

USA

Sunshine Network

ESPN

TNT

Encore-plex!

Nickelodeon

CNBC/VH1

Disney

Lifetime

Arts & Entertainment

MTV

C-SPAN

Univision

Learning

Court TV

Discovery/Travel Channel

Black Entertainment Channel

Comedy Central

MSNBC-news

Eternal World Network/Odyssey

QVC

Golf

A la carte superstation package

TBS

WGN

AMC

Choice access

Turner Movie Classics

The History Channel

Premium services

HBO

HBO-Multiplex

The Movie Channel

Showtime

Cinemax

Pay-per-view

Four Home Theatre channels

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