TUESDAY, AUGUST 3: Local television channels ZBM and ZFB face being taken off the air in a new pricing row with CableVision.

Popular shows like the nightly news and topical chat show Let’s Talk may soon be unavailable to cable subscribers as a result of the price war.

According to CableVision, the Bermuda Broadcasting Corporation wants it to pay to carry the two channels on its network.

CableVision has responded by announcing that it no longer wishes to carry either station.

Statement

BBC president Rick Richardson was unavailable for comment tonight.

In a statement today CableVision general manager Terry Roberson said the channels would likely be off-air from November 1.

No announcement has been made on potential replacements leaving the provision of popular shows like Oprah, CSI and the Young and the Restless up in the air.

The decision could mean that some Bermudians can’t access ZFB or ZBM at all.

The channels are supposed to be available free-to-air through the traditional ‘rabbit ears’ antennae.

But many viewers have complained of disrupted or non-existent service since lightning struck a telecommunications tower in December last year.

CableVision said it had taken the decision ‘in the interests of customers’.

Mr Roberson said it was unfair to ask its subscribers to pay for channels they could get for free elsewhere.

Meanwhile politicos expressed concern that the loss of two local channels could have a negative influence on the spread of information in the run-up to a general election.

Others believe the decision will accelerate a cultural shift from television to the internet as a source of news and political commentary.

Mike Fahy, chariman of the OBA, said he hoped the issue could be resolved: “It is to the benefit of all Bermuda to have access to the television news. Programmes like Let’s Talk  are particularly valuable in the run up to an election. I’d certainly like to see this sorted out.”

The background to the row is a 2008 amendment to the Telecommunications Act allowing local broadcasters to either charge a licence fee or compel Cablevision to carry their content without fee. It is understood that BBC has now requested that Cablevision pay a licence fee.

‘Cable broadcast tax’

Mr Roberson added: “Our primary concern is our customers. Why should our customers pay for a service that is provided free to non-cable customers who use an antenna? We believe that this amounts to a ‘cable broadcast tax.’ We have found that the vast majority of our customers are not prepared to pay for a service which has been offered to them for free for so many years, and which would continue to be accessible for free by antenna.

“For this reason, we no longer wish to include local broadcast channels 7 (ZFB) and 9 (ZBM) on our system.

“It goes without saying that this is not a pleasant decision for us to have to make; however, after much consultation and review of events that transpired in the past, we believe this is the only logical solution.”

It is now up to the Telecommunications Commission to decide when the channels will be removed from the cable package.

The Telecommunications Amendment Act 2008 allowed for broadcasters to choose between a ‘must carry’ relationship with broadcasters or a ‘retransmission consent’ deal.

For the period 2008-2011 BBC had opted to charge Cablevision to run the channels but the decision was reversed after a protracted legal battle.

As the deal comes up for renegotiation BBC has indicated it will opt for ‘retransmission consent’, requesting a licence fee from Cablevision.

Mr Roberson said the fee would inevitably be passed on to customers and insisted Cablevision was not willing to pay.

“The Bermuda Broadcasting Company now wants our customers to pay for channels which are free for everyone else. We do not think this is right, especially in these economic times.”