Cox Ropes Off Rhode Island to NECN

Newport, R.I.— The six-term mayor of Providence is under federal indictment, but Cox Communications Inc.'s 330,000 Rhode Island cable subscribers have to watch local TV stations and national cable networks to keep up with the story.

That's a bitter disappointment for New England Cable News, the regional news channel that reaches 70 percent of the six-state region's cable subscribers.

But in Rhode Island, NECN can't find a home anywhere with Cox, whose systems provide programming services to about 96 percent of all Ocean State subscribers and which recently obtained permission to overbuild another operator that serves the rest of the state.

Cox and NECN have been negotiating for years, but the talks always seem to stall.

And the frozen negotiations are unlikely to melt in time for NECN to bring Rhode Island its coverage of Mayor Vincent (Buddy) Cianci Jr.'s trial, which is not expected to begin for several months.

A colorful and popular figure in the state, Cianci was indicted April 2 on charges of bribery, extortion, mail fraud and witness tampering in a federal case known here as Operation Plunder Dome.

John Wolfe, Cox's vice president of government and public affairs for New England, said Cox has numerous reasons for refusing to carry NECN in Rhode Island as well as in Connecticut, where Cox has about 140,000 subscribers.

NECN, he said, typically angles its news coverage toward Boston. As a result, Rhode Island subscribers haven't expressed great interest in receiving NECN, which is jointly owned by Hearst Corp. and AT&T Corp.

"We think it's very Boston-centric and we have Boston news product on our system," Wolfe said. "There has never been huge consumer demand for it here."

Cox provides Rhode Island subscribers with a 10 p.m. news feed from a Boston TV station and has a deal with the ABC affiliate in Providence to re-run their news programming in other day parts, said Wolfe.

"It's basically time-shifted news," he said. "It's a valuable service because [subscribers] don't have to set their schedules to the news."

These deals, when added to news provided from Providence local TV stations and national cable networks, have led Cox to conclude that its Rhode Island cable subscribers are "rich in news product," Wolfe said.

By now, Cox's position is painfully familiar to Philip Balboni, president and founder of NECN.

"[Wolfe] is singing out of the same hymn book," Balboni said at the New England Cable Television Association convention. "We are unique. There is no other 24-hour regional news channel in New England. Period."

NECN doesn't have a Rhode Island bureau, but the network would quickly establish a presence in the state if it secured a carriage deal from Cox.

Rhode Island cable subscribers would value NECN if they were aware of it, Balboni said.

"To say there is no subscriber demand for a 24-7 regional news network is not a credible argument," Balboni said.

In 1994, the Federal Communications Commission granted NECN a waiver from program- access rules. That allowed NECN to provide its programming to New England cable operators on an exclusive basis.

Although the waiver expired this year, it was no longer necessary because NECN in 1995 started delivering its signal to New England cable operators via fiber optic cable in large population areas and by microwave relay in sparsely populated areas as far up as Bangor, Maine.

NECN escapes the program- access rules without a waiver because FCC rules cover only those MSO-owned networks that are delivered to distributors via satellite.

Oddly, the number of Cox subscribers that don't receive NECN is roughly equal to the number of New England subscribers who are customers of DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp., the leading direct-broadcast satellite providers.

But Balboni said he was unwilling to put any pressure on Cox by selling to DBS. Although such a move might shake up executives at Cox, but it would also anger his cable affiliates.

"We have made a commitment to this industry to be cable-exclusive. Why should we punish our good affiliates because we have one company that is not supportive?" Balboni said.