LENOX -- Time Warner Cable subscribers here in the Berkshires and nationwide have dodged another bullet. But it's too soon to tell whether TWC has learned to avoid alienating its customers through bone-headed programming maneuvers.
With just days to spare, the conglomerate that serves 11.7 million viewers across the United States has agreed to keep Nickelodeon, Comedy Central and MTV on its systems. Because of a fee dispute with Viacom Inc., which owns those popular networks, TWC had threatened to black them out as of Jan. 1. Sound familiar?
On a national stage, this was a potential replay of the flap here in New England that amounted to a public relations disaster when, without any announcement beyond a small-type legal notice, TWC came close to pulling the plug on New England Cable News.
On Dec. 20, a week after local and regional media headlined the news, TWC reversed course and agreed to keep the 24-hour news channel on its systems in the region, including Berkshire County.
The intervention of Berkshire lawmakers helped turn the tide, especially after Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, along with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, wrote to cable company CEO Glenn Britt, strongly urging him to rethink the decision to remove New England's only 24-hour cable news source.
But, as state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli pointed out in a followup conversation this week, pressure from Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King was a crucial element, since TWC serves that state's two major cities, Portland and Bangor. Protests from some of the company's 300,000 subscribers in Maine were just as vehement as they were here.
NECN is an especially vital link for the Berkshires, where access to state news from Boston is severely limited because of federal regulations defining our county as part of the Albany TV territory.
In its official statement, Time Warner asserted that "NECN has now agreed to work with our leadership to improve the quality of their local programming for our customers."
NECN's general manager Mike St. Peter responded: "We are thrilled Time Warner heard their customers' voices and will continue to carry NECN. We appreciate that the residents of New England view NECN as a critical service. We remain committed to quality programming and our partnership with Time Warner."
Despite TWC's statements questioning the "quality" and "good value" of NECN programming, and vague references to alleged low viewership of the channel, the dispute was all about a breakdown in negotiations over how much Time Warner pays to include NECN in its lineup.
Last summer, after Time Warner pulled CBS and Showtime from its systems in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas, 306,000 furious customers canceled their subscriptions. That should have been a five-alarm wake-up call to a cable company that has seen other subscribers "cut the cord" to save money.
Any remaining reservoir of good will toward TWC by Berkshire customers would have dried up if not for the reversal of the NECN decision. There have been service disruptions in part of the county, anger over selective blackouts of Boston sports contests, and resentment over the relocation of public-access channels that carry local government meetings to a more expensive digital "tier."
The problem is that Time Warner remains a cable monopoly here, as well as in parts of Vermont, New Hampshire and much of Maine. Satellite services provide better customer service and lower prices, for the most part, but here in the Berkshires, local choices offered by DirectTV and Dish are limited to Albany stations.
Neal, Markey and Warren should now apply the same pressure on the Federal Communications Commission as they did on Time Warner.
Make Berkshire County part of the Springfield "market" once and for all, assuring that our cable and satellite-relayed TV signals come from our own state. That would be a victory that would lower, or even eliminate, the risk of another cable "fee dispute" that could further weaken this county's already-tenuous media links to Boston.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.