Customer outrage as Comcast shuts off local news in Mass

by AARON NICODEMUS, Standard-Times

A number of SouthCoast cities and towns are gearing up to fight Comcast's decision to shut down the daily local news broadcast on Channel 9.

Meanwhile, the region's state senator suggested that it would take nothing less than a "public hanging" of Comcast to bring the news channel back.

The local cable news channel, which was broadcast to cable subscribers in Fall River, Dartmouth, Fairhaven, Acushnet and New Bedford, was shut down after its nightly broadcast last Wednesday.

According to sources within the Channel 9 newsroom, the staff was told Thursday morning that Wednesday night was their last broadcast. While many of the employees are being offered other jobs within Comcast, the news itself is gone, replaced with eight hours of "local content" per week.

A Comcast spokesman said last week that the local news broadcast in Fall River was the only one of its kind anywhere in Massachusetts.
When contacted, Jim Phillips, the news director who led the Channel 9 news team for many years, said that he could not comment on the program's demise.

New Bedford Mayor Scott W. Lang met with Acushnet selectmen yesterday to discuss options to fight Comcast's decision, while Dartmouth Executive Secretary Michael Gagne said he would bring the issue before the selectmen last night.

"I've contacted other communities to see if we can make a united, concerted effort to bring back the news," said Mayor Lang yesterday. "It's important for the communities to have a local TV news program."

Mr. Gagne called Comcast's decision "absolutely terrible" and "a travesty."

He said he will suggest that selectmen request a hearing with the state on the issue.

Robert Brown, chairman of the Acushnet Board of Selectmen, said the board will complain to Comcast about the decision, and discuss other options.

"I think it's a shame that Comcast can't continue the services," Mr. Brown said. "If we all get together and are on the same page, we'll see what we can do."

State Sen. Mark C. W. Montigny said he will wait to see what the local government officials want to do before taking any action. But he said it is another example of a corporation operating with little or no competition, and abusing the consumer.

"What really needs to happen here is a public hanging of the corporation," he said. "If you're in a negotiation, and one side plays hardball, the other side has to play hardball. The public has to be just as uncooperative in the negotiations."

Sen. Montigny suggested that every community has to "play hardball" with Comcast in the negotiation of their cable contracts, and that local officials need to scrutinize both their contracts and the regulations to squeeze every concession they can get. Local communities might just have to deny every single one of Comcast's requests — like when the cable giant asks to dig into a road to install a cable — until the company returns some sort of local news program to service.

"A corporation like that will send their high-priced lawyers down here and shove something like this down people's throats," he said. "The only way to prevent that is to make sure the people on your side are just as nasty."

Although three Rhode Island television stations cover the SouthCoast, their focus is primarily on Providence, which is the core of their market. Comcast's Channel 9 nightly news was solely dedicated to this region, the only television news to do so.

Although each community has a cable contract with Comcast, only Fall River's contract contained the provision of a local news broadcast. That contract is currently under negotiation.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey