Cox Guide Shift Stirs Pot in Va.

Fairfax County, Va., residents and regulators are up in arms over Cox Communications Inc.'s decision to discontinue its monthly cable-programming guide.

As of March 1, Cox had stopped publishing CableEdition Magazine, a publication delivered free to 230,000 customers in one of the nation's most affluent areas.

The decision to scrap the magazine touched off a flurry of complaints to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, as well as allegations that Cox was secretly hiking its rates by 30 percent.

"How stupid do they think we are?" asked board supervisor Penny Gross.

Under the system's prior owner, Media General, the magazine had been a Fairfax County fixture for almost 18 years. Estimates place the annual cost of publishing the guide at up to $2 million.

"They [Cox] don't want to be in the publishing business," said Walter "Skip" Munster Jr., director of the Fairfax County Telecommunications Division. "What we're seeing is people who feel that their service has diminished because they no longer receive their programming magazine."

Cox spokesman Scott Broyles said consumers weren't losing anything because the cost of the magazine has never been built into local cable rates.

This was not the first time a major MSO has dropped its printed programming guide. Most recently, Comcast Corp. dropped listings that were being delivered to about 50,000 customers in New Jersey. The company claimed that such offerings were not profitable.

But, Cox seemingly made a bad situation worse when it suggested that its customers should subscribe to a regional edition of TV Guide
specifically tailored for Fairfax County. That subscription would add $3.99 to their monthly bill.

"We just made a business decision to transition from a monthly magazine to a regional edition of TV Guide," Broyles said.

Supervisors and Cox have been at odds over customer-service issues since the MSO acquired the system from Media General. The county's decision to overhaul its telecommunications ordinance has also fanned the flames of contention.

It was unclear, though, if the board has the authority to demand that Cox continue to offer the magazine. Munster said staff members have been directed to determine the county's options.

Gross called on Cox to continue to deliver the programming guide at least until it completes the rebuild of its system, a project that should last another two years.

"This extra $48 a year is going to have a serious impact on a lot of people," Gross said. "I find this to be an irresponsible approach by the cable operator."

The discontinuance of Cable Edition
stands to save Cox between $1 million and $2 million per year, Gross estimated. She also wondered if the MSO would receive a percentage of the monies TV Guide
collected from county subscribers.

"With 230,000 customers, at $3.99 a month, you're looking at $10 million [per year]," Gross said. "If Cox saves $2 million, then gets a portion of that $10 million, it's quite a windfall for them, isn't it?"

In an interview with The Washington Post, general manager Gary McCollum said the listings were discontinued because they were out of date by the time they reached subscribers. McCollum said consumers can access an on-screen program guide, but only if they subscribe to Cox's digital service.