Fightin’ for the Phils Newport Commons residents face Philly sports, local programming blackout when apartment complex cuts ties with Blue Ridge Cable
By: STEPHEN SEEBER Record Express Staff, Staff Writer
When the Fightin’ Phils enter the post-season this fall with an eye on another World Series appearance, fans living in Newport Commons won’t be watching.
"If I don’t get the Phillies, I just as soon not have television," said a 92-year-old resident of the apartment complex who asked that her name be withheld.
Starting Sept. 6, residents accustomed to getting their television services from Blue Ridge Cable will be forced to switch to Windstream, a local communications company that offers digital TV, Internet and phone service packages. That means Philly fans will lose Comcast Sportsnet, which broadcasts most Phillies, Sixers and Flyers games. They will also lose Blue Ridge’s local programming on channel 11, which covers local high school sports, news and events such as the Fourth of July festivities in Lititz.
"I don’t go out much, and I depend on the sports channel," the elderly Phillies fan continued. "I’m disappointed that we weren’t told about it, or that we had no say in it. But what do they care what an old woman says?"
Scott Morris, a spokesman for Windstream, confirmed that his company has entered into a bulk billing arrangement with Newport Commons, an apartment complex off of East Newport Road in Warwick Township with approximately 270 residential units.
"This is fairly common with apartment complexes," Morris said, explaining that residents will receive television and Internet services through Windstream in a package plan. "It’s a very competitive offer and we think customers will like it."
Bob Leicy doesn’t like it.
The disabled cancer survivor, who loves his TV, is upset about the infringement on his freedom of choice.
"They’re telling me what I can do and what I can’t do in my own home," he said. "What happened to our rights as United States citizens?"
In an effort to garner some political muscle, he has written letters to Lititz Mayor Ron Oettel, Congressman Joe Pitts and State Representative John Bear.
"I’m disabled. I leave the house maybe once a month to go to the store; my son takes me," Leicy said. "All I have is my TV."
But government intervention may not be an option. Dan Zimmerman, business manager for Warwick Township, said local government has no control over wireless technology. Regardless, the controversy may find it’s way to a courtroom, depending on what Blue Ridge’s legal team unveils.
According to Joe Lorah in the Blue Ridge marketing department, residents being forced to accept one service provider or settle for nothing is unprecedented.
"The customers are being almost bullied to sign up quick," he said, referring to the Sept. 6 deadline. "Hopefully we can do something about it so the customers have a choice."
He said a majority of Newport Commons residents have called Blue Ridge with concerns about the situation, and Leicy said, "I know of 250 people who have complained."
Most residents found out about their cable fate late last week through letters from the apartment complex’s management and Blue Ridge Cable. In addition, Windstream sent representatives to Newport Commons on Monday to answer questions.
The biggest question for many seems to be why Dana Glass Properties (owner of Newport Commons) decided to impose the change without consulting residents. While Newport Commons’ management did return one phone call with a voicemail, future attempts to reach them for comment were unsuccessful.
Mike Hayden, director of consumer sales for Windstream, said the change may take some getting used to, but in the end he feels customers will save money (about $15 a month of their television service), enjoy a slightly different package of channels and get Internet service that is up to eight times faster than what they’re used to now.
"We’re offering a very aggressive package," he said.
As for the loss of Comcast Sportsnet, he said negotiations continue in an attempt to remove that blackout so Windstream may be able to offer that channel in the future. If those negotiations fail, he said there are other ways to tune in to Phillies games, such as a high speed Internet hook-up.
Residents who sign up with Windstream should see an overall reduction in their TV, Internet and phone bills. And those who decide to not sign up will still automatically receive a basic 11 channels for free. Internet users will have to switch from Blue Ridge to Windstream as well.
Morris said the Windstream package also serves as a marketing tool for the property owners, as they can attract new renters with attractive service rates.
Hayden said Windstream, which purchased Ephrata-based D&E Communications several years ago, has been diversifying from strictly phone service for some time and has been offering digital TV services for about five years. The arrangement with Newport Commons is only the second of its kind in the entire state, according to Hayden. The first was in Waynesburg, a town near Pittsburgh. He said expects more of these types of deals with apartment complexes in the near future.
"We’re bringing competition to the market," Morris added.
Meanwhile, Blue Ridge, which has had the market cornered on TV services (other than satellite) for some time, plans to do what it can to give customers a choice.
"We are filing, I don’t know the legal terms for it, but we feel the customers should have a right to choose," Lorah said. "We don’t care that there’s competition because we feel we have a superior product. Our legal department is looking into what can be done." More CABLE CHANGE, page A15