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Cable TV rate relief spelled i-n-c-r-e-a-s-e With higher fees may come fewer choices


Thousands of cable TV subscribers in Maryland will receive a double dose of bad news through the mail in coming days.

As many as 40 percent of all subscribers will see their cable bills increase on Wednesday as a result of congressional legislation that was supposed to offer rate relief.

And, to make matters worse, their cable service may no longer include such top-rated network fare as "Seinfeld" or the World Series come Oct. 6, just as the fall TV season is getting under way. That, too, is a result of the 1992 Cable TV Act, which was supposed to make life better for cable subscribers.

"It looks like about 40 percent of our subscribers are going to see their rates go up on Sept. 1," said Stephen Burch, vice president of Comcast for Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. Comcast Cablevision is the largest cable operator in Maryland, with systems in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties. Today, it will start mailing notices of the new rates and its retransmission agreements with local network affiliates to 256,000 Baltimore-area subscribers.

"As for retransmission-consent, as of today in Baltimore County, for example, we have agreements only with WBAL (Channel 11) and WNUV (Channel 54)," Mr. Burch said. "We'll continue to negotiate and I'm hopeful that something will be worked out before the deadline on Oct. 6. But that's where it stands right now."

Comcast's Baltimore County operation still has not received permission from WMAR (Channel 2), the NBC affiliate; WJZ (Channel 13), the ABC affiliate; or WBFF (Channel 45), the Fox affiliate, to run their programming through the Comcast cable system.

If they don't work something out by Oct. 6, Comcast's 170,000 Baltimore County subscribers will have to switch from cable to over-the-air reception to see such popular shows as "The Simpsons," "Home Improvement" or "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." It's the same story for Comcast customers in Howard and Harford counties.

Cable subscribers on other systems will be experiencing similar problems.

These difficulties result from two different parts of the cable act going into effect in the next two months, bringing some unintended fallout.

On Wednesday, rates mandated by the bill must be in place. The goal of that provision was to roll back rates by about 10 percent. But cable operators, working with the numbers provided by Congress, have ended up raising rates for many subscribers.

The second troublesome provision deals with retransmission-consent, which gives local TV stations the right to charge cable systems for carrying their broadcast signal. If the cable operators are unwilling to pay, the broadcasters can refuse to let their signal be carried on cable.

Cable operators and broadcasters have been battling all summer over retransmission consent. At the network level, at least, some progress has been made. The New York Times reports today that CBS has joined ABC, NBC and Fox in abandoning demands that cable systems pay large sums for the right to carry broadcast signals from network-owned stations. (Each network owns seven broadcast stations; none are in Baltimore.)

Comcast has agreed to pay a much smaller fee to carry a new CBS cable channel, and the network is reportedly working on similar agreements with the nation's other large cable systems.

But progress in local negotiations has so far been slow.

The deadline for making a deal is Oct. 6. Cable operators must let customers know which stations they do not have agreements with by Sept. 6. Those notices are also in the process of being mailed.

It all adds up to "a big mess," in the words of Douglas Gomery, who teaches media economics and cable TV at the University of Maryland. Mr. Gomery is one of the few analysts last year who predicted higher rates when the act's congressional sponsors were promising rate relief.

The bill simply has fostered more problems than it has solved so far. While it lays down a detailed set of guidelines aimed at reducing rates, the guidelines also provide cable operators with the math for higher overall rates.

In Baltimore, the United Artists cable system is raising rates by adding $2.23 to the tier of channels called Plus Service, which is Basic plus such staples as ESPN, CNN and MTV. It is one of the more popular ways to go for cable subscribers. United Artists' customers also will be paying a new $1 a month rental fee for a converter box and a $1 increase in some of the premium channel packages, such as Home Box Office and Home Team Sports.

But there will be decreases in the charge for remote control devices, with fees for additional outlets eliminated altogether.

United Artists' General Manager Euan Fannell said yesterday that he could not estimate what percentage of his 102,000 Baltimore city subscribers would see a net increase or decrease as a result. In general, those subscribers with the Plus Service and no additional outlets or remotes will see the biggest increase.

As for retransmission, Baltimore's United Artists has not signed the ABC, NBC or CBS affiliates as of today.

For Comcast customers in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties, the higher bills will come from increases in rental rates for converter boxes. In Baltimore County, subscribers will be charged $2.34 a month for the boxes, while those in Harford and Howard will pay $2.06 and $1.78, respectively, according to Mr. Burch. The differences are the result of complicated formulas laid down in the Cable TV Act for how rates are to be determined based on such factors as age of equipment, rate of depreciation, number of channels and subscribers.

Mr. Burch said rate increases will range from 50 cents to $1.90 a month for the 40 percent of his customers who receive them.

North Arundel Cable declined to comment on either rate changes or retransmission agreements.

Cable viewers who want to see network shows not available on their system have few options. Comcast and United Artists' spokesmen say their companies will provide viewers with A/B switches to make switching from cable to over-the-air possible.

Antenna costs vary. Rabbit ears that perch atop TV sets start at about $15 while top-of-the-line rooftop models sell for $120 plus installation. If you need a motorized rotor system to catch waning signals, add another $100 to $150 to the bill.

"It's still a mess, but at least we have the CBS affiliate," Comcast's Mr. Burch said ruefully. "My nightmare was the Orioles . . . in the World Series on CBS, and we can't carry it on our cable systems."

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