Several Fairfax supervisors say that they plan to use the prospective takeover of the county's cable franchise as a way to get better rates, service and equipment for the county's 244,000 subscribers.
Under county and federal law, the $1.4 billion sale of Media General Cable of Fairfax to Cox Communications can't go through without the supervisors' approval, and today the board will hold a hearing on the deal. That's a perfect time, say at least five supervisors, to try to extract improvements in the 15-year contract for providing cable service in Fairfax that was worked out last year with Media General Cable. About 60 percent of the county's homes have cable.
Media General Cable's Fairfax customers have complained about the company's cable rates, programming and outdated converter boxes that do not allow customers to record one program while watching another one.
"There's no reason why we shouldn't use this opportunity when it appears we have some leverage for a change," said Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock). "I suspect we'll have a dialogue with Cox and perhaps get some concessions."
Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence) said he plans to seek a two-week delay in approving the sale and to have the board direct county staff to negotiate with Cox about rates, cable converter boxes and programming.
"Here's a brand-new company coming into our community," Connolly said. "I'd like to give them an opportunity to look at a handful of issues that I think have merit."
Thomas Waldrop, chief executive officer of Media General Cable, a subsidiary of Media General Inc., which has several newspaper and cable TV holdings, warned that any negotiations to amend the agreement between the cable company and the county--which runs until 2013--could be a two-way street.
"I think whenever you are dealing with amendments, that works both ways," Waldrop said. "Just as the county might want something a little different, it's not improbable that Cox might want to see things a little different, too."
Waldrop said that Cox is committed to improving the technology offered to customers, including better converter boxes and more choice in programming. He said the company's recent rate increase of 7 percent--to $39 per month for the most popular service--was the first in two years.
"This landscape is changing, and it's changing dramatically," he said, referring to the Internet and cable's satellite television competitors. "You are going to do the kinds of things that you need to do to become competitive."
Several supervisors came to the cable company's defense, saying they would oppose any effort to impose new conditions on the county's cable television franchise.
"Cox bought an existing franchise agreement. Trying to load it up with more would cause Cox to go away," said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully). "It is unfair to reopen it and go for more. I would be surprised if the federal regulations give us the right to do it."
Nick Miller, a lawyer whose firm represents local governments in cable franchise negotiations, said many communities have used similar purchase agreements as a way to amend deals they have with their cable companies.
"There is a legitimate role for the elected officials to step back at the time of transfer and say, 'Is this going to benefit the community or not?' " said Miller, who represented Fairfax during the franchise negotiations a year ago. "It is true that at transfer, some communities have raised issues and gotten them resolved. That's a common thing."
Fairfax County's lawyers are not so sure.
Laywers for the county have told supervisors that the legal grounds for rejecting Cox's purchase of Media General Cable are limited and that the county could not block the deal if Cox refused to amend the county's cable agreement, according to several board members.
The county's staff has recommended that the supervisors approve the purchase.
But five board members say that the board should try to do more to protect cable customers.
"Some advice has been provided that would seem to suggest that we have no leverage," Connolly said. "I do not believe that is the case. Our county code makes it quite explicit that Cox Communications must agree to any reasonable amendments to the franchise. I'm simply suggesting that we have a period of dialogue."