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Catholics Question Comcast Switching Channel to Digital
BY Bryan BerryRegister correspondent
SHOREWOOD, Ill. — Mariann
Whitemiller was upset and angry when, on Aug. 20, the Eternal Word Television
Network (EWTN) suddenly disappeared from her TV.
Comcast, Whitemiller’s cable
provider, had stated on its August bill to customers in the Chicago
metropolitan area that it would be shifting the station from its basic cable
service to a digital signal. EWTN would also switch from the standard cable
package (which includes the expanded-basic lineup of channels) to its digital
But Whitemiller was unprepared for
the change and, as of late September, still hadn’t decided what to do.
“I’m having a hard time without
EWTN,” said Whitemiller, who lives in Shorewood, Ill., and is a parishioner at
St. Jude Church in Joliet, Ill. “I watched just about everything.”
EWTN broadcasts Mass and the
recitation of the Rosary four times a day. “If I missed Mass in the morning,
I’d watch it later in the day,” said Whitemiller, rattling off the times when
EWTN broadcasts the Mass. “I would say the Rosary with the sisters every night
at 8:30 unless I was out.”
When Pauline Scharres, a parishioner
of St. John of the Cross Church in Western Springs, Ill., another Chicago
suburb, had the same experience as Whitemiller, she immediately got on the
phone. “Later I’ll tell you how mad I am,” she told the Comcast customer
service representative, “but for now, tell me how I can get EWTN.”
this EWTN?” the serviceman asked Scharres when he arrived. “This is the fourth
service call I’ve made this afternoon to people who want EWTN.” After the
serviceman installed a small set-top box that converts the digital signals,
Scharres told him about EWTN. “It gave me an opportunity to evangelize,” she
and Scharres are among the many viewers of EWTN around the country —
particularly in the Midwest, Northeast, and Mid-Atlantic — who have had similar
experiences in the past two years.
trend among cable companies is to move from analog to digital signals; EWTN is
now available in Chicagoland, as in many parts of the country, only digitally.
Chicago, and throughout the U.S., 67% of Comcast’s customers already receive
their television programs digitally, said Rich Ruggiero, vice president for
communications and public affairs of Comcast’s greater Chicago region (which
extends to South Bend, Ind.).
the remaining 33% in the Chicago area (including Whitemiller and Scharres),
two-thirds of them were receiving EWTN on the standard cable package (which
includes expanded basic) and one-third on the cheaper basic service package
($17.99/month). For the expanded-basic customers, getting EWTN means installing
a set-top box converter and paying an additional $1.99 a month; the monthly
bill for these customers goes up from $54.99 (for standard cable) to $56.98
(for digital starter).
customers with basic service, getting EWTN means paying $1.13 a month to rent
the basic-only converter box. Customers with basic or expanded-basic service
can either have a Comcast serviceman install the box, they can buy their own
converter, or they can buy a digital TV.
received a lot of calls about the change with EWTN,” says Ruggiero. “It was
pretty representative of what we’ve experienced when we’ve moved a channel
before. Any time you change a channel, it produces a response; every channel is
someone’s favorite.” In the past, Comcast in Chicagoland has moved the Hallmark
and C-Span 2 channels from expanded basic to digital starter.
did Comcast choose to move EWTN and Hallmark from its analog to its digital
packages? Fewer people watch these channels than watch ESPN and some of the
other channels on the basic and expanded-basic analog packages.
immediately wanted to know why Comcast had switched the Catholic channel, while
leaving the two evangelical Protestant stations on the analog packages.
answer: These two are local full-power broadcast stations and have what are
called “must-carry rights.” The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
requires cable companies to carry all full-power local broadcast stations in
the markets in which they operate.
is not transmitted over the air by local broadcast stations; it’s available
only by cable or satellite (see sidebar). In a separate, unrelated development,
all broadcast stations will be required to transmit digitally starting in February
mystery to many viewers: Why is EWTN included in one package in one area and
another package in another?
due to the history of cable, said Ruggiero. As recently as 10 years ago, there
were many more cable companies serving different parts of Chicago and the rest
of the country. Comcast acquired what was known as AT&T Broadband, which
resulted from AT&T acquiring TCI and MediaOne; other defunct companies
include Adelphia and Jones Spacelink. Comcast continued the different packages
offered by these previous companies in different areas. “We’ve never completely
rationalized all those differences from previous providers,” Ruggiero says.
“EWTN is an example of that.”
some parts of the country, loyal EWTN viewers have signed petitions to get EWTN
on cheaper packages — or any package — in their area. In 1997, 3,000
residents of Holyoke, Mass., signed a petition and persuaded Comcast to include
EWTN in its basic-service analog package, which now costs $4.45/month.
Comcast switched EWTN to its digital package in July 2008, Holyoke residents
called their mayor to complain. Comcast then agreed that EWTN could be offered
to Holyoke residents on a digital package, called digital classic ($19.35),
that is considerably cheaper than digital starter ($58.44 in Holyoke).
has a franchise agreement with every town, village, unincorporated
municipality, or city in which it provides cable service. This gives the local
governments some leverage over Comcast. At the federal level, the FCC monitors
Comcast and responds to complaints from consumers.
The FCC has tried to get cable
companies to offer a la carte pricing, but the companies say that’s not
Catholics in the Nashville, Tenn.,
area started a petition in 2003 to get EWTN added to a Comcast package;
Catholics constitute only 4% of the population in the Nashville area. In 2004,
Comcast agreed to add EWTN to a digital package. At present, EWTN is not on the
digital starter package in Nashville ($52.50/month); digital preferred ($68.45)
is the cheapest package offering EWTN to Comcast customers in Nashville.
“Throughout our 27-year history, we
have consistently encouraged companies to put us on their lowest level of
service reaching as many customers as possible,” said Chris Wegemer, EWTN’s
vice president of marketing. Since EWTN (unlike other channels) charges no
licensing fee, it has typically been included on the cheapest package.
“We have heard from many customers
from around the country who are upset when EWTN is moved to the digital tier,”
Wegemer says. “We acknowledge that cable companies have the right to manage
their own channel capacity. But if any customer has been told that EWTN
requested being moved to a more expensive digital tier, that’s simply not true.”
Bryan Berry writes
from Joliet, Illinois.
How to Get EWTN Comcast, the largest
company that carries EWTN, is the largest cable company in the United States.
It has 25 million cable customers in 39 states (and Washington, D.C.) as well
as 14 million high-speed Internet customers. Other leading cable companies
include Time Warner Cable Inc. (No. 2 in the U.S.) and Cablevision.
Another way to get EWTN is through
satellite companies, which beam the TV stations to a home-installed dish. The
two leading satellite companies are:
• Dish Network, which offers EWTN on its family package for
• DirecTV, Inc., which offers EWTN on its family package for
For the satellite TV to work, the
dish must be installed with an unobstructed view of the southern or
southwestern sky; some apartment co-ops ban dishes.
The other possibility: phone
companies, which, in some cases, are offering bundles along with the satellite
companies. AT&T, for example, is currently offering unlimited phone service
plus the Dish Network for $69.99/month in the Chicago area; Verizon offers a
bundle with DirecTV. AT&T also offers EWTN and EWTN Español in its U-verse