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WILL JUDGE PULL PLUG ON CABLE TV MARKETING TOOL?

Cable TV companies across the country, and their customers, await a judge's ruling on whether a cable company can bill consumers for a service they didn't ask for and did not specifically reject.

The marketing tool used by Storer Cable TV for thousands of Florida customers was challenged last week by state Attorney General Bob Butterworth.According to company literature, Storer customers in Broward County will get the Encore movie channel automatically beginning Monday at no charge - but they must cancel it by July 1 to avoid charges ranging from $1 to $4.95 a month, depending on what other pay channels they have.

Butterworth says the practice violates Florida law and he has asked Broward County Circuit Judge Lavon Ward to halt Storer's plan. If his request is granted, it could prevent other companies from using the marketing tactic, known as negative option marketing.

At least 20 other states are studying the plan being used by Storer's parent company, Tele-Communications Inc. TCI, with about 10 million subscribers, is one of the nation's largest cable companies.

Suits similar to Butterworth's have been filed in Texas, Iowa, Washington and elsewhere, authorities said.

"Cable TV has gotten to be a quasi-essential commodity in the information age," Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. "They think they can behave like used-car salesmen."

Storer lawyer Terry Bienstock called Butterworth's suit "cable bashing" and denied the Encore plan was designed to deceive customers.

"The marketing plan taken as a whole is fair," he said during a hearing before Ward Friday.