Editorial: Cable frustration

Rural Mainers don’t have many choices (if any) when it comes to high-speed internet or cable television providers. It’s a difficult clientele to serve due to the small, geographically widespread population. With little ability to shop around and hefty monthly bills, many customers are frustrated.

The cable television model — paying for many channels, even when you only watch a few — is also cause for angst, especially with the surging popularity of on-demand streaming services.

In September, a new state law requiring cable companies to provide TV programming on an a la carte basis went into effect. It has yet to be enforced. The first law of its kind in the nation, it met with fierce opposition from cable companies and has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge. The Portland Press Herald reported that U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen ruled that cable companies suing over the law will likely prevail on their claim that the law interferes with their First Amendment rights.

There doesn’t appear to be much evidence that the law would drive down costs overall and it could raise them. Enforcement also could be an issue. Cable companies have franchise agreements with municipalities so it could be up to Maine’s towns and cities to enforce the rule.

Suzanne Goucher, president and CEO of the Maine Association of Broadcasters, has said the group is concerned that the law doesn’t exempt the basic tier of cable service, which includes local broadcast stations, from the à la carte requirement. Federal rules require cable companies to provide the basic tier as part of all cable packages. Customers picking and choosing among local stations could weaken financial support for the others, according to Goucher.

A lawyer representing Comcast said the law would “upend the economics of this industry.” But, Christopher Taub, Maine’s deputy attorney general who is defending the law in court, said the state’s goal is “a better deal for customers.”

Mainers have every right to be frustrated with cable providers and their options for recourse — while limited — are powerful. If complaints to the companies fall on deaf ears, they can cut the cord. Cable providers already are losing customers to streaming services. The industry must adapt to stem that tide and please its remaining customer base or risk losing it all.

The market is the best vehicle for driving that change.

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