Chilly Reception

If you've rigged the wires on your cable box so you can get HBO for free or bought a "descrambled" black box so you won't have to pay for cable at all, a new law says you could be fined $4,000.

The legislation, signed last month by Governor Roy Romer, was pushed by the cable industry, which claims that it's losing millions of dollars a year in Colorado to cable "pirates."

But critics of the television industry say a different sort of economic pressure--competition from satellite services--is behind the industry's drive to punish cable pirates.

"The cable industry is under a lot of pressure from the direct-broadcast satellite folks," says Henry Labalme, executive director of TV Free America, a Washington, D.C.-based public-interest group. "Everyone in the industry is panicked about holding on to their market share." Cable companies, however, say the only thing they're panicked about is the number of people jiggling their wires.

"It's patently unfair for someone to get cable service for free," says Matt Fleury, a spokesman for TCI, the company that serves about 80 percent of the cable customers in Colorado. "Now we can show [pirates] that the damages we can levy under the law are substantial."

A lawmaker who co-sponsored the bill says he wanted to make sure people realized there were consequences for pilfering cable service.

"This penalty is large enough that most people will take notice," says state senator Bill Schroeder, a Morrison Republican.

And the cable industry has certainly taken notice of Schroeder and the bill's House sponsor, Republican representative Doug Dean of Colorado Springs.

TCI, which is the largest cable company in the world and is headquartered in Greenwood Village, paid its local lobbyist, Steve Durham, $36,000 last year, according to records on file in the Colorado Secretary of State's Office. Durham donated $100 last year to Dean's re-election campaign. He also took Dean out to lunch or dinner more than half a dozen times in the past two years.

As for Schroeder, who is now campaigning for the Republican nomination in the Sixth Congressional District, he received $500 from cable mogul Bill Daniels during his 1994 state Senate campaign.

Schroeder points out that the largest penalties in the new law--fines of up to $50,000--are directed at those who sell illicit cable equipment for commercial use. In such cases, cable companies are aiming at the black-market sale of "descrambled" cable boxes--which purportedly allow their owners to get all cable programs for free.

The new law requires cable companies to first contact suspected cable pirates via certified mail, giving them the chance to sign up for paid services or to unplug their illegal wires. "We'll give them every opportunity to become honest citizens," says Fleury.

Under the old law, cable pirates were subject to minimal fines. "The damages weren't sufficient to even cover the costs of bringing someone into court," adds Fleury.

Companies such as TCI estimate that as many as 10 percent of cable viewers are watching programs they haven't paid for. They compare pirating television shows to shoplifting and say it costs the industry billions. "On a national basis, our industry is losing $7 billion a year to cable pirating," says Fleury. "We feel the best way to address this issue is to bring some leverage against people who are stealing cable."

Labalme of TV Free America admits that piracy happens on a large scale. He says Americans were used to getting their television for free in the days before cable, which may explain some viewers' cavalier attitude toward ripping off their local cable company. He also says that some people are probably mad at themselves for watching so much TV and that their monthly cable bill is a reminder of how much time they spend in front of the boob tube.

"There's a love/hate relationship with TV," says Labalme. "People feel guilty for paying $30 to $70 a month for cable. Maybe this is a backlash against an industry so many Americans sense is using them. It's like a pusher who gives out drugs to get people hooked and then charges them."

Addicted or not, cable pirates had best be prepared to pay the price in Colorado. Those found guilty of stealing broadcasts of World Wrestling Federation championships or Spice Channel jiggle-fests will have to pay all of their cable company's attorney fees and investigation costs in addition to the $4,000 fine. Former cable customers who fail to return cable equipment will also be subject to these penalties.

Violation of the new statute is a Class Two misdemeanor. Other crimes that merit that status include defrauding a lender for less than $400, stealing up to $400 from an ATM machine and causing as much as $400 in damage while trespassing on private property.

Cable executives contend that many people don't even seem to realize that stealing the signals is against the law.

"This is perceived as a victimless crime, which it isn't," says Durham. But he adds that viewers who are illegally receiving cable will have ample opportunity to make amends before landing in court. "People will have several chances to quit," he says. "We're not trying to play 'gotcha' games with our customers. We're trying to get at people who knowingly violate the law."

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers