At 8:05 last Friday night, Donna Barrowman turned on the television in her Potomac home, expecting to see her son Mike compete in the 200-meter breaststroke at the Goodwill Games in Seattle.
"I turned on TBS and there was a movie on," she said. "At first, I thought it was just an advertisement to promote their shows, but it kept going. I couldn't believe it."
Once she realized the clip was, in fact, a movie -- the 1959 comedy/suspense film, "Gazebo" -- Donna Barrowman was in a panic. She called a cousin in nearby Laytonsville, Md., who has a satellite dish, and rushed over to see her son set a world record.
Her husband Ray wasn't as fortunate. He was on his way home from an Oakton swim club and had to wait until the next day for a taped version provided by his wife.
Like 35 percent of the cable households in the Washington area, the Barrowmans are unable to see the Goodwill Games because their cable system decided not to pay an extra fee imposed by TBS for the 86 hours of coverage over 17 days.
Turner Broadcasting charged local cable companies $1 per subscriber for access to the Games feed. Customers of companies that decided not to pay receive regular TBS programming, which consists mostly of old movies.
"We recognize not carrying the Goodwill Games is unpopular with some subscribers," Cable TV Montgomery President John Eddy said. "But the vast majority of our subscribers aren't interested and probably wouldn't have been overjoyed at the cost to acquire the Games, which, ultimately, would have had to been reflected in the rate base."
Eddy said he received "several hundred" calls from its 129,000 customers and early announcements that the system was not going to show the Games would have been useless because of TBS's heavy promotion.
"Anything we could have done would have been muted by TBS's promotion," he said. "It put us in a fairly difficult position."
Cable TV Arlington and Multivision, which operates in parts of Prince George's County and Leesburg, also opted for the regular feed.
About 82 percent of the 52 million U.S. households that receive TBS are getting the Games, with a high of 98 percent in Seattle, San Diego, Chicago and Miami and a low of 54 percent in Sacramento and, ironically, Atlanta, where Turner Broadcasting is based.
A cable franchise in Orange County, Calif., is adding the event this week because of the number of inquiries, TBS spokesman Bob Dickinson said.
"We feel we have a partnership with the cable operators and in order to provide better original programming, we ask that they help with it," Dickinson said.
ESPN uses a fee system for its NFL coverage, now in its fourth season, and almost all systems oblige, ESPN's Mike Soltys said. The network charges local systems 14 cents per month per subscriber in exchange for the game feed and an extra two minutes for local commercial space. TBS offered five of its 12 advertising minutes per hour to the outlets.
Donna Barrowman said "the swimming community is furious" and that many friends are going to write letters and cancel their subscriptions for one month in protest.
"We got cable mostly for sports events," Ray Barrowman said. "This time they really let us down. It was an unpleasant surprise."