Statewide cable TV agreement bill goes to governor
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Statewide cable TV agreement bill goes to governor

Date: March 15, 2007
By: Cliff Ainsworth
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SB 284

JEFFERSON CITY - A bill that landed on Gov. Matt Blunt's desk Thursday could drastically alter the way cable television service is offered to Missourians. 

Given final approval by the General Assembly this week, the measure is the latest step in a nationwide trend to give telecommunication companies easier access to cable TV markets.  Blunt's office indicated the governor intended to sign the bill, which proponents say will result in more options and lower prices for cable TV customers.  

But critics of the measure are concerned that it will remove customer service protections and could mean subscribers will be forced into signing cable service contracts.

The bill would do away with the current negotiations process that cable companies must traverse to offer cable TV in Missouri. Rather than approaching individual cities to gain approval to offer service, the companies would instead go through the state's Public Service Commission.  While the change is primarily administrative in nature, it would make it easier for companies such as AT&T - which lobbied heavily for the legislation - to begin offering cable TV in the state.

Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington, the sponsor of the bill, was ecstatic after it passed. 

"This will put Missouri in the forefront as a leader in technology, as a leader for video products," he said.  "It's a great day."

Griesheimer contends that making it easier for companies to offer cable will benefit customers.  "From the consumer's point of view, they're going to have more choices regarding their television choices," Griesheimer added.  "Along with the choice will mean lower prices."

But Public Service Commission Chairman Jeff Davis voices concerns that under the bill's changes, cable companies may push customers into service contracts similar to those required by cell phone providers.  Cable companies that currently have no competition in a city would not be prohibited from requiring contracts to keep customers from changing service to a new competitor.  If a customer had a dispute with their cable company, Davis said, they wouldn't be allowed to switch to another provider until the contract expires, and they wouldn't be able to turn to the government for help.

"If you're locked into a long-term contract, like you are with a cell phone, then all of a sudden you have to pay a big penalty to get out of it," Davis said. "Then you're trapped." 

Davis also has said that the bill needed to have the PSC or some Missouri agency given authority to address customer complaints.

The Missouri Municipal League says the legislation would remove city governments as an outlet for customers who are upset with their cable service.

"When there's poor service, poor quality of the picture, or whatever it is, the city has no leverage with (cable companies)," said Richard Sheets, Missouri Municipal League Deputy Director.  "That would be gone because now it's going to be a state franchise."

Davis said he's concerned that those customers will then come to the Public Service Commission under the impression that it has the power to address their grievances.

"That's not going to be the case," Davis said.  He added that if customers come to the commission with complaints, he'll refer them to lawmakers.  "It's my intent, everyone of those calls that we get, I'm going to refer them to their respective legislator and ask that their legislator ... handle the issue."

Griesheimer was taken aback by the notion that cable companies would begin requiring contracts and said he didn't think they would take that route out of fear that it would "run off" customers.  He also said the bill provides adequate customer service protections by requiring service providers to establish a grievance process and allowing service and billing complaints to be filed with a hearing commission.

The bill also allows municipalities to require cable companies to provide 24-hour customer service phone numbers and to keep callers on hold for no more than 30 seconds.

AT&T, which pushed heavily for the bill's passage, had been in negotiations to provide cable in 120 Missouri cities and towns before the bill's passage, and had reached agreements with ten - a rate that AT&T spokesman Kerry Hibbs said is far too slow for the telecom company.  

AT&T spent $168,434 in campaign contributions to Missouri state candidates during the fall election season, according to a January report the company filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission. 

The lobbying effort on the cable bill drew skepticism from House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, who was one of only four House members to vote against the legislation.

"When it looks like you've got a huge concentration of power and you've got nearly every lobbyist in Jefferson City, including the governor's brother, retained to lobby on behalf of this bill, the Missourian in me says, 'Let's take a closer look at this,' " Harris said, referring to Andrew Blunt, a lobbyist for AT&T and brother of Matt Blunt.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least seven other states have already passed statewide video franchise legislation in the past two years, including Kansas.

But whether or not that state's franchising changes have encouraged cable TV competition in that state is unclear at this point.

"It's probably a little premature to make that assessment," said Rosemary Foreman, spokeswoman for the Kansas Corporation Commission.  Kansas passed video franchising legislation last spring.

Missouri's bill would require the Public Service Commission to report on the success of statewide franchising to the legislature annually for the first three years.  But whether or not cable prices have gone down would not be a requirement of the report, Griesheimer said.