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DAVID VS.GOLIATH // Cable company unplugs Greek TV

Sotirios "Sam" Agelatos conducted his own version of a "Gallup" poll live from WZRA television's modest studio this week.

Already, the one-man broadcast required Agelatos to operate the dual minicamcorder setup himself, flip the sound-board switches and keep up with the flashing buttons on the phone.

"What do you think, 50 people work here?" he said.

And he did it all while repeating his question in a fluctuating hybrid of Greek and English to each new caller to his talk show: Do you want to see WZRA on your cable network?

For 10 minutes, the calls never let up.

While WZRA lacks the technology of MSNBC, the polish of FOX and the reach of CNN, Agelatos said the poll showed people in Pinellas County want their Greek TV, especially in Tarpon Springs.

Bright House Networks ran WZRA virtually uninterrupted on Channel 15, Tarpon Springs' government-access channel, until about two weeks ago. That's when it was bumped by the city's debut television production, a seemingly innocuous city-produced video about referendum items on the March 14 election ballot.

Now the 22-minute city video plays on an almost-continuous loop, pausing only for replays of Tarpon Springs' City Commission meetings.

Gone was WZRA's news and public affairs programming from Greece, Canada and Europe, as well as its local talk shows, cartoons and music programming.

Loyal viewers throughout Pinellas now charge that the underlying problem is the cable company's refusal to give the station its own channel, a position they say smacks of ethnic prejudice, according to Agelatos and his brother, who use slightly different spellings for their last names.

"How come they have four Spanish television stations?" said Angelos Angelatos, Sotirios' brother, who is also WZRA's programming director and co-host of the talk show. "Bright House discriminates against the other nationalities."

Immediately after the change, city officials started fielding a steady stream of complaints, and throngs of angry viewers tied up phone lines at Bright House cable, one of the county's two major cable providers.

The disgruntlement came as a shock to city officials. Because City Hall subscribes to Knology cable, where WZRA appears on Channel 122, they said they did not realize Bright House had been running WZRA on Channel 15.

Angelatos said getting WZRA on both cable networks is not just a Greek issue. Imagine the frustration of those who are tuning in for WZRA's Italian soccer games, German news or the live Polish talk-shows, and no matter what time of day or night, find only Tarpon Springs city staff members describing ballot initiatives.

Nor, say the brothers, is it just a Tarpon Springs issue. Fans throughout Pinellas would like to see WZRA somewhere in the Bright House lineup, they say. It used to be in Time Warner's lineup, but it was dropped everywhere but Tarpon Springs after Bright House took over, they said.

Over the past two weeks, WZRA has been inundated by thousands of calls, Angelatos said. He said he told viewers to call Bright House vice president Mike Robertson and even gave out Robertson's direct phone number on the air.

"I don't think the way they addressed with Bright House put them in good graces," said Mayor Beverley Billiris, who has been talking with WZRA and Bright House about getting the station back into the company's lineup.

The station's time-sharing arrangement with the city was negotiated informally several years ago, after Bright House took over Time Warner's operations in Pinellas County and dropped the channel from its previous position in the lineup.

At the urging of unhappy citizens, Tarpon Springs' former mayor, Frank DiDonato, arranged for the station to air on Bright House Channel 15, Billiris said.

At the time, the channel was virtually unused, since the city was using it only a few hours a week to rebroadcast City Commission meetings.

Meanwhile, WZRA remains on Knology Channel 122. And with a good antenna, viewers from Pinellas Park to New Port Richey and from Clearwater Beach to eastern Tampa can pick up WZRA's broadcast on UHF Channel 48.

Another wrinkle that has emerged makes it unlikely the issue will be resolved after the city's March 14 referendum, when the infomercial expires, Billiris told the City Commission last week.

WZRA had been not just airing movies and talk shows on the public access channel, but also advertising, which is prohibited by FCC guidelines, she said.

At the time WZRA began appearing on Bright House Channel 15, it probably was not doing much advertising, Billiris guessed.

"It is a commercial station," Agelatos said. While television advertising has grown over the years, he said it was never a secret.

The brothers said they were optimistic after meeting with Bright House representatives Friday.

But Daniel Ballister, vice president of communications, was noncommittal. Ballister declined to comment on the status of the discussions with WZRA, offering only what he characterized as "a general statement" about prospective channel additions.

"We consider the views of our customers," he said. "And we're going to continue to look at the programming that's out there."

Ballister said ethnic discrimination would not play a role in whether WZRA returns to Bright House Networks in Pinellas.

The brothers are not convinced.

Robin Stein can be reached at rstein@spttmes.com or (727) 445-4157.

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