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 starter package.
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.”
“What’s 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 said.
Whitemiller 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.
The 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.
In 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.).
Of 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).
For 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.
“We 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.
Why 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.
Catholics immediately wanted to know why Comcast had switched the Catholic channel, while leaving the two evangelical Protestant stations on the analog packages.
The 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.
EWTN 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 2009.
Another mystery to many viewers: Why is EWTN included in one package in one area and another package in another?
That’s 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.”
In 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.
When 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).
Comcast 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 economically feasible
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 $19.99/month; and
• DirecTV, Inc., which offers EWTN on its family package for $29.99/month.
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 packages.