Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Contracts? We Don’t Honor No Stinkin Contracts!

Back in the Stone Age, when I was a kid, I was told quite explicitly that lying was bad.  This was further reinforced by my Sunday School teacher and my Girl Scout leader.  It was made clear that if you did something wrong, you should still tell the truth, even if that truth had consequences.  In the end, they said, you will be a better person for it.

Imagine my surprise as an adult when I first heard the phrase “Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”  I’ve never liked that philosophy; I’ve just always felt it was better to be up front, to be honest about your intentions.

A wee bit later in life I learned: there is truth, there are lies and then there are legal binding contracts and frequently these things never do cross paths and more often than not, the legal binding contract trumps everything else.

The only way I know how to get out of a contract is to prove you were mentally incapable or incompetent when you signed it.

Which brings me to my subject.

Charter Communications signed a legal binding contract with the Town of Northbridge, Massachusetts in the spring of 2013.  The contract detailed how Charter would conduct its business in the Town, to include the provision of Public, Educational and Government (PEG) access television channels, support for those channels and their placement on the cable system.

The contract clearly (and I mean that in the most Linguaphile interpretation of the word “clearly”), states the following:

“The Licensee shall continue to make available to the Town and/or the Access Designee three (3) full-time Downstream Channels for PEG Access purposes on channels 11, 12, and 13.”

Yet, some eighteen months later, Charter has slammed those Northbridge PEG channels to 191, 192 and 194.  To add further insult, the Charter government relations person said “I personally messed up in terms of the license we had with Northbridge.”  And went on to let the good Selectmen of Northbridge know that Charter would not be moving the PEG channels back to their contractually binding position any time soon, meaning never.

We can speculate, fairy accurately, that when Charter signed that contract in 2013 it was already in the midst of making its digital transition plan, and it knew that they would slam the PEG channels to the higher placement, but they signed the contract anyway.  I am not sure if this was just lying or that asking for forgiveness later deal.  But I am pretty dog-gone positive the contract trumps whatever devious intentions or model business plan Charter may have had.

One could venture that should the contract come under some kind of judicial review, Charter’s only hope is to plead mental defect or insanity. I, myself, would be perfectly willing to testify to the findings of such a plea.

From a purely analytical point of view, what could explain Charter’s decision in Missouri a few years ago to pull free cable drops to police departments and fire stations?  Sure, the statewide franchising law didn’t require these drops the way the local franchises had done previously, but why treat first responders with such disdain, knowing the company would make itself look churlish and it would garner bad publicity?

Mental defect?  Insanity perhaps?

Why on earth would a company slam PEG channels in Missouri and Wisconsin to the 900’s?  Why would they slam community channels full of church services and school board meetings and the Rotary Club to what I am told is the “Porn Neighborhood”?  (I wouldn’t know, I don’t “do” porn).

Mental defect?  Insanity perhaps?

And then, why would a company march into a perfectly good school district in Montana and tell them they had to rent cable boxes at $6.99 a month for every television set in the district if they wanted to get cable?  A rate, mind you, that would cost the school district $60k to $80k per year.  This behavior is further proof of something going on when Charter knows all it had to do was provide DTA’s to the school district at very little cost and that would have solved the problem. 

Mental defect?  Insanity?  Out of control hormones?  Bad Sushi?

The phenomenon that is Charter Communications never does cease to amaze me, and not long ago I could shake my head and laugh it off, but with Charter poised to be the second largest cable operator in the country, it’s no longer a laughing matter.

Little old Northbridge, Massachusetts is not the only community this is happening in, add to them Worcester, Uxbridge and Douglas, to name a few. 

Meanwhile, it would be very hard to claim a mental hiccup whilst the ink was drying on the legal binding contract given in Northbridge the PEG channel positions are now occupied by QVC, Telemundo and the NFL Network.  Those lower channel numbers, which the Charter representative allowed really are not very important, seem to be occupied by at least two pretty important revenue generating programmers. 

And that, at the end of the day, is the point.  For the bottom line, cable operators will do what they have to do, contracts be damned.  It does remain disturbing that after they’ve done it, they’re not even willing to ask for forgiveness.

To see the Northbridge Selectmen's hearing on the issue go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZdhea-vigI&feature=youtu.be

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