Town meeting with Cablevision on new pact

COURTESY PHOTOS | A trio of negotiators for Shelter Island are meeting with Cablevision executives to hammer out a franchise TV contract.

Time is as important as money when it comes to ongoing negotiations between the town and Cablevision to provide cable TV service to the Island.

It’s not the time between August when the old contract expired and now, two weeks into 2013 without a new deal. All players involved in the talks say that’s standard speed (or lack of it) for  cable TV contract  talks.

But it’s the length of time a future pact will run that’s been a significant item on the table.

The old contract was in effect for 10 years. But with new communication technologies appearing at head-spinning speed, there’s caution on locking the town into another decade-long agreement, when breakthroughs in tech know-how could leave the Island with an antiquated and costly TV delivery system.

Town Councilman Peter Reich is part of a trio of negotiators for the Island, with Town Attorney Laury Dowd and Councilman ED Brown rounding out the team dealing with the Bethpage-based communications behemoth. Speaking to the issue of  the length of the contract proposal,  Mr. Reich said he was reminded of  Steve Jobs and how the technology visionary had foreseen TV changing radically, with Internet-based delivery and/or Wi-Fi technology possibly making  coaxial cable obsolete.

Councilman Brown said it was not “good practice to talk about negotiations,” but did say the length of a new deal has been discussed.

There have been several meetings between the town negotiators and Joan Gilroy, director of government affairs for Cablevision,who declined comment when asked about the negotiations. The last sit-down between the parties was in December, when the town made an offer.

“We’re waiting to hear back from them,” Mr. Reich said. “The ball’s in their court.”

Jim Maiella, vice president of media relations for Cablevision, also declined to comment, saying it was  long-standing Cablevision policy of not commenting on ongoing contract renewal negotiations.

The deal hammered out 10 years ago calls for 3 percent of every resident’s cable TV bill to go to town coffers as a franchise fee. (Mr. Reich pointed out the negotiations are only about TV and not phone or Internet services.) According to Town Clerk Dorothy Ogar, the town received $61,735 for 2011, but has not  yet received 2012’s fees.

The contract calls for a 5 percent cap on the franchise fees, but it has stayed at 3 percent and will in a new deal since a raise in percentage would be passed directly on to the consumer, Mr. Reich said, and would in effect be a de facto tax.
“The franchise fee is not on the table,” Mr. Reich said.

Aside from satellite services, Cablevision is the only ground-based game in town when it comes to television , a fact the town negotiators have to live with but not necessarily like. “One thing is I wish we had more competition,” Mr. Reich said.

The current contract came after a six-year deal had expired and called for, among other things, the ten-year life of the contract,  a local government affairs channel seen on channel 22, and a grant of $8,600 for the town to buy cable-related equipment.

During the Town Board vote in January 2002 on the contract, only Councilman Glen Waddington, who pushed for a five-year agreement, opposed the contract.

As for the time between the current contract’s August expiration date and when a new one will eventually be signed, all players involved said it’s anyone’s guess how long it will take. “I would say Cablevision tends to go for awhile, yes,” Mr. Brown said. “There’s a bit of work to do for sure. It’s amicable, but it’s business, also.”

The expired contract remains in effect due to New York State Public Service Commission rules that automatically extends “temporary operating authorities.”

Mr. Maiella, Cablevision’s spokesman, said the six-month lag without a contact between the town and the cable company was not unusual, or overly lengthy. “New York City was years between the final end of a contract and a renewal,” he added.