HOT's plan to drop BBC Prime continues

Decision kicks up frustration among English-speaking subscribers

When it comes to attracting ratings and cable subscriptions, TV executives are eternally on the hunt for the "watercooler show" - the elusive hit that attracts huge audiences and then builds on its success by inspiring the kinds of casual conversation that bring in even more viewers. Executives at cable provider HOT have managed to get audiences talking with unusual intensity over the past week, but not because of a new hit the company is offering viewers on air. Instead, many HOT subscribers are voicing anger over what the company is dropping from its offerings starting February 1 - Eurosport News, the Adventure 1 channel and particularly BBC Prime, the 24-hour entertainment network that offers a mix of BBC-produced comedies, dramas and other programming. HOT's decision has, unsurprisingly, kicked up particular frustration among Israel's population of native English speakers, some of whom have begun to initiate e-mail and call-in campaigns to persuade the company not to discontinue its BBC Prime broadcasts. Those efforts didn't appear to have made much headway by Monday, however, with the company confirming its intention to stop airing BBC Prime at the end of the month and replace the channel with programming from China, Georgia and Ethiopia. HOT has already begun airing an English-language channel from France and will add an "erotic channel" called Amateur Babes next month. A spokesperson for the company said it would also continue airing three American channels with which it recently renegotiated its contracts: Hallmark, Fox Sports and National Geographic. Like BBC Prime, the three channels had faced the chopping block before agreeing to lower the price the cable provider pays to air them. The renegotiated contracts were signed after months of declarations by HOT CEO David Kamenitz that he ultimately hopes to reduce the company's programming costs by as much as 40 percent. HOT has no plans to cut further channels in the near future, a company spokesperson said, adding that contracts with other foreign-language channels would remain in force through the end of 2007. The company is currently in negotiations to add several new channels to its standard cable package, among them Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel. Fallout from the decision to drop BBC Prime is reaching some sectors of the company, however, with a HOT customer service provider saying Monday that she had received "tremendous numbers" of telephone complaints about the decision. Despite those complaints, HOT is not in breach of legally mandated programming and pricing requirements, said Yoram Mokady, the chairman of the Council for Cable and Satellite Broadcasting. Though the cable provider is required to offer a certain amount of foreign-language programming if it is to maintain its current subscription prices, the removal of BBC Prime does not in itself constitute a violation of the company's responsibilities. "We have no authority to determine which channels they buy," Mokady said, adding that his organization has no plans to push for action against HOT. Mokady noted that satellite TV provider YES, HOT's primary rival, carries BBC Prime, and that he expected competition between the two companies would ensure a wide selection of foreign-language content in Israeli homes. HOT representatives, for their part, appear to be using consumer frustration over BBC Prime as an opportunity to promote the company's more expensive Video On Demand package. The company has been heavily promoting the package since reaching an agreement with American cable network HBO to broadcast shows including The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Curb Your Enthusiasm. BBC programs including Footballers' Wives and Coupling also appear on the VOD menu. So far, consumers don't appear to be dropping their HOT subscriptions en masse, nor are they flocking to YES in pursuit of continued BBC Prime access. Libi Zipser, a YES spokesperson, declined to say whether the company had seen an increase in subscriptions since its competitor's controversial announcement. The satellite TV provider is "constantly" reviewing its programming and budget, she said, but added that YES currently has no plans to drop BBC Prime.