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MIT Cable Provider Bankrupt; CNN, MTV Go Blank

By Beckett W. Sterner


MIT Cable no longer carries popular channels including MTV, ESPN and CNN after its content provider declared bankruptcy.

The free basic service for channels 6 through 36, including network television and the MIT cable channels, were unaffected by the outage, which began on Feb. 28.

Although the monthly rate for the remaining channels in the subscription service dropped from $24.99 to $13.99, so far 70 out 369 “living groups” such as individual students and floors in dormitories cancelled their service, said Randall W. Winchester, Team Leader of MIT Cable Television.

Because MIT’s content provider, WSNet, was the only company offering a digital subscription-based service for universities, it is unlikely a replacement company will be found in the short term, Winchester said.

Jerry Barnes, president of Falls Earth Station, Inc., the intermediary between MIT and WSNet, said that the new $13.99 monthly fee for the reduced number of channels “just barely covers [expenses] if I was providing zero programming.”

Few replacement options open

WSNet was the “sole source” in the nation offering the standard cable channels in digital format via a subscription service that allowed living groups to sign up on an individual basis, Winchester said.

Barnes said that “there wasn’t a good alternative” before WSNet, and “there won’t be one a year from now” in terms of providing the type and format of service MIT needs.

“People are looking at resurrecting [the WSNet] platform as we speak, but it’s a pretty chancy” prospect, Barnes said. “At some point, all these basi c services will be available in digital format.”

In the meantime, because MIT requires digital formatting to provide more than a small service, there are no equivalent alternatives currently available.

As a temporary solution, Winchester said that it may be possible for dormitories to acquire a satellite television dish, which could then be wired into televisions in common areas and floor lounges. He said that it would be prohibitively expensive in some cases to completely rewire the dormitories to allow satellite service for individual rooms.

Cable at MIT faces challenges

The two major obstacles to finding a new provider for the core cable services are that it is not reasonable to buy a bulk-rate subscription for the entire campus and without digital content the cable package would be limited to many fewer channels, Winchester said.

With a bulk-rate subscription, every television set would automatically receive the full cable service, making it impossible to charge specific groups a subscription fee. Since the bulk-rate charge would then come out of MIT’s operating expenses, every student would subsidize the cost of cable.

Finding a new cable provider is difficult because “MIT does not want to take on a bulk-rate commitment,” and “there’s nobody who wants to offer a subscription-based service,” Winchester said.

Winchester said that the best offer MIT has received for a replacement would cost $30,000 for a bulk-rate subscription providing just ten channels in analog. He said that even this offer did not satisfy current MIT budgetary constraints and MIT Cable would not be able to pay for it on its own.