Getting Clear Picture of Cable and Pay TV

Times Staff Writer

Question: Being new to Los Angeles, I find myself confused by all the cable- and pay-TV systems here. I would like to take advantage of a wider range of TV fare, but I don't understand which system offers what--or even where to call to "subscribe" (if that's the right term). And what's the difference between "cable" and "pay," since you "pay" for both of them?

This week, there is a news story that says only one cable-TV franchise holder (and what's that?) has been permitted in each area of the city but that this is going to change. How can I find out whose area I'm in, what I get for my money and, for that matter, how much the different options cost? Except for printed ads, I've never had any contact with the cable industry.--M.F.

Answer: Instead of wanting to know how cable TV works in the Los Angeles area, would you settle for the answer to a simpler question? Like: What is truth?

If you are from a more conventional city (ha!), your bafflement is understandable because things were probably very clear-cut there. You had your conventional VHF and UHF channels and, in all likelihood, one cable-TV franchise service available to you (although there are exceptions to this).

In other words, there are big bucks involved in installing a citywide cable-TV system, and the final vote still isn't in on whether consumers are best served by granting one company what amounts in effect to a monopoly, or letting two or more companies butt heads for the same market. Of course, in most areas economic feasibility is the determinant, which is why the one-per-market rule dominates.

According to Jerry Yanowitz, vice president of the California Cable Television Assn. in Oakland, the usual procedure is for the city to put out a proposal outlining the minimum specifications that interested cable companies must provide for their subscribers (and yes, subscribers is the right word). The proposal must spell out such details as the monthly charges, installation fees, re-connect charges and what-have-you. All of these charges can change later, however. This might take the form of specifying a minimum of 35 channels (both VHF and UHF), two satellite services, a public access channel and any number of other things.

"The cable firms respond with bids," Yanowitz adds, "and, in the past, (these bids) have gone beyond the city's minimums." And, unfortunately, that's exactly why a number of cable firms across the country have gotten into trouble--by promising too many extras for markets that weren't as lucrative as had been forecast.

Los Angeles (wouldn't you know?) is different. The area is simply too big and too demographically mixed up for any one company to handle.

Non-Exclusive Territories

"It was divided up into territories--the Hollywood-Wilshire corridor, for instance," Yanowitz says, "the South-Central territory and so on. And California cities, including Los Angeles, are different from cities in most other states: Under state law, the territories are non-exclusive. While it's generally one cable company per city or county, the city (or county) in California is free to give out a second franchise for the same territory--although it seldom happens in reality."

What's confusing about the Los Angeles area, then, is that we have not one but 12--count them--cable-TV franchisees, Yanowitz adds. And while not actually overlapping, the territories twist and curl around each other like a basketful of snakes.

"And since the franchises were granted at different times to different companies," he emphasizes, "you've got a variety of systems in place--some have a 35-channel capacity, others have 54 channels, and a few have a capability of 100 channels."

Margaret Silliker Wolf, a spokeswoman for the Southern California Cable Assn., a loosely structured group of about 500 members who are simply interested in the field for professional or personal reasons, offers this case in point: Pasadena, a suburb of about 114,000 souls, is split between two franchisees--Falcon Communications and, in northeast Pasadena, Kinneloa TV System, which also juts out into Los Angeles County to pick up an additional 200 households. Huddled up against them is American Cablevision, which has both South Pasadena and San Marino.

In size, the CCTA's Yanowitz adds, the Los Angeles-area franchisees range all the way from 7,000 to about 300,000 households, with Westinghouse Broadcasting & Cable's Group W at the high end of that range.

So all right. How do you determine in whose area you fall in the absence of any neighborhood-targeted advertising or promotion?

"A good place to start the search," according to Thomas Kezar, region sales and marketing director for Group W, "is in the Yellow Pages, where most of the larger cable companies pretty clearly spell out which areas they serve. And, from her address, it's clear that (the reader) would be served by us--by our Eagle Rock office."

Serves Larger Area

A biggie in its own right, with 90,000 households, Group W's Eagle Rock office not only serves that enclave, but also Los Feliz, Griffith Park, Hollywood (east of Highland Avenue), Silver Lake, Glassell Park, Highland Park, Echo Park and El Sereno-Atwater. You can give manager Linda Edwards a ring at (213) 258-3252 for more details.

But, OK, there can still be confusion about what cable-TV company serves your area in spite of the Yellow Pages. (Group W's coverage "east of Highland" is an example of less-than-exact pinpointing.) What then?

"In most California cities," Silliker Wolf of the Southern California Cable Assn. explains, "all you have to do is call the city's Office of Communications. Although in Los Angeles"--for reasons that are not all that obvious--"it falls under the Department of Transportation."

One-Channel Services

The number there for tracking down which cable company services your area is (213) 485-2751.

What's the difference between cable TV and pay TV, since you do indeed pay for either? The area's two pay-TV outlets--and you surely could not have missed SelecTV and ON advertising--are simply over-the-air television-subscription services that incorporate in-house decoders to unscramble the picture received.

Not surprisingly, people in cable TV take, charitably, a jaundiced look at pay TV.

"They're essentially one-channel services;" Silliker Wolf explains, "You get your standard VHF and UHF channels and one other. With cable's basic service alone, you're getting these plus a couple of satellites and public access channels--maybe 35 or 40 channels in all." So, it seems, pay TV exists for customers who want movies and sports that can't be found on VHF and UHF but who don't live where cable is available.

Installation charges for both systems will vary somewhat depending on a number of factors: "Whether the house has been hooked up before, how many television sets are included, whether there are telephone poles in the area or whether everything is buried--things like that," she explains. "The range is all the way from about $25 to $50."

Group W's Kezar adds that all cable-TV companies provide a basic service--"the assurance of clear reception of your 'off-air' channels--VHF and UHF--plus a couple of satellite stations, leased-access and local-origination channels and the industrywide, average monthly fee, which is in the $10-to-$12 range."

Once you get beyond the basic service, however, it's strictly a la carte as you add on HBO, Showtime, Z, the G-rated Disney Channel and so on.

"These will run from $8 to $12 a month apiece extra," Kezar explains, "and there's really no limit to it. I don't know of anyone, though, who subscribes to all of them."

Submarginal Service

So, all right, what happens if you happen to live in an area serviced by a cable-TV company providing submarginal service? It's a sticky wicket in a commercial activity where, sure enough, service is every bit as important (if not more so) than the programming. Aye, there's the rub.

There's always the city's club hanging over the franchisee's head in the threat of yanking that franchise, but, as CCTV's Yanowitz points out: "The franchises are normally for 15 years," which is a long way down any patient subscriber's road. Another threat, of course, is the non-exclusive clause in California's law covering cable franchises, which, at least in theory, gives the city the right to grant an overlapping franchise to a second company, which (it is hoped) will come in and do the job properly.

But that too is hollow comfort, as the frustrated 181,000 households making up the South-Central area can attest. Still without cable service two years after the franchise was granted to ACCESS-Sun Cable, there may still be another three-to-four-year wait ahead while the courts wrestle over whether a second franchise in the area should be awarded. And, if it should be awarded, whether there will be enough business in the area to support two cable companies.

But the South-Central area's frustration is nearly matched by those cable-TV subscribers living in Culver City, La Verne, Tustin, Covina and a broad swath of Los Angeles proper--from Downtown through Hollywood-Wilshire out to Venice--where service is available, but has been the target of non-stop complaints filed with the Department of Transportation charging poor service, missed installation appointments and substandard television reception.

Earlier this year, on the heels of several years of mounting complaints, CommuniCom, which won this franchise in an uncompetitive bid in 1979, filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, which allows the company to continue to operate while attempting to reorganize. In 1983, CommuniCom's 47,500 subscribers logged no fewer than 2,919 complaints with the city's Department of Transportation--six times more than Group W received in the same year with three times the number of households being served.

"But the complaints," CommuniCom spokesman Perry Parks says, "have been going down appreciably since about last September."

Don G. Campbell cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to consumer questions of general interest. Write to Consumer VIEWS, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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