More than 60 irate West Hollywood cable-television subscribers crowded into Plummer Park's Long Hall on Tuesday night to protest installation by Century Communications Corp. of high-tech converter boxes that impair the remote-control and programming features of so-called "cable-ready" television sets and videocassette recorders.
Complaints centered on installation of TOCOM converter boxes in 8,000 West Hollywood households, and on the firm's phone and technical services.
Many rankled cable subscribers told Councilman John Heilman, who chaired the meeting, that they want the converters removed because they are difficult to operate. Others said they wanted the company to provide auxiliary equipment to make the converters compatible, free of charge.
"Century Cable says that its converter boxes make it possible for the company to provide you with additional channels--whether you want them or not," said Jorian Clair, one of the meeting's organizers. "What they don't tell subscribers is that the company's system is not totally compatible with television sets and VCRs in customers' homes."
"I don't recall when a public issue has caused so much furor in our city," said Ethel Shapiro, a community activist who organized the meeting for residents to express dissatisfaction to City Council members and Century Communications Corp. representatives over changes in their cable service. According to council members, turnout was greater than for any issue since rent control.
Shapiro's statement that she plans to drop premium channels if Century does not address consumers' complaints was greeted with cheers. "Many people paid hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of dollars for their equipment," she said. "We want them (the cable firm) to make their system compatible with the receivers and systems we have at home."
Four of the city's five council members--Heilman, Abbe Land, Stephen Schulte and Helen Albert--as well as City Manager Paul Brotzman and mayor's deputy Paul Koretz attended the meeting. Heilman said the city is hopeful that a solution can be found. Although some subscribers have talked of a boycott, he said that would have to come from the community, not the city.
Disparity of Technologies
Century's vice president, William J. Rosendahl, responded to the grievances by saying that an unfortunate disparity exists between the technologies of consumer electronics and the cable industry. But the TOCOM converters, he said, are needed to upgrade the cable system according to the terms of a contract with the city and to protect the firm against theft of its signal.
"The problem (of incompatibility) is not created by the cable company, but by technology. There is no other technology on the shelf that is any more state of the art than what we have introduced into West Hollywood," he said.
Rosendahl introduced technical experts from TOCOM and Century, who explained that modern television sets and VCRs are not in fact "cable ready" at all. They demonstrated a combination of auxiliary equipment--including "A/B switches," "splitters" and additional converters--that can restore all remote-control and VCR functions. Century sells a package of such equipment, excluding the extra converters, for $7.50 including installation if purchased when the converter is installed, or $22.50 if purchased later.
In an interview before the meeting, Michael Harris, Century's vice president for engineering, said comparable auxiliary equipment could also be purchased at any major electronic parts store and installed easily by a subscriber with the aid of printed instructions, which Century provides at its office.
Rosendahl explained that the 17-year-old West Hollywood cable system, one of the oldest in the nation, contained no protection against theft--a major problem--or provision for innovations such as pay-per-view. "It was built so that people in the hills could get decent reception," he said, "not for premium channels."
Under the old system, Rosendahl said, clear cable signals, including premium channels, were sent out to all subscriber households. A small device called a trap screened out all channels for which a subscriber was not paying. The traps were inefficient, he said, not only because they could only accommodate a limited number of channels and were very susceptible to tampering and theft, but also because they required a service call every time a subscriber added or dropped a premium channel.
The newly installed TOCOM devices can expand the system from the current 36 channels to 54, as mandated by the franchise agreement. And the converters enable Century to scramble transmission of its premium channels.
The boxes are, in cable-industry jargon, both "programmable" and "addressable," meaning that the cable provider can add or subtract channels without a service call merely by programming computers at its headquarters in Santa Monica to unscramble a certain signal at a particular address. Beyond that, Rosendahl said, the converters will enable the company to offer "impulse pay-per-view" service for special events; subscribers soon will be able to simply push a button if they want to receive special one-time movie screenings or sports events and be billed later.
The 4,000 West Hollywood subscribers who receive no premium channels do not need the devices, Rosendahl said.
Ian Tanza, the city's cable TV and fine-arts administrator, acknowledged the need for modernization--as well as the existence of a serious signal-theft problem under the old cable system. Nevertheless, Tanza said in an interview: "It is shocking that the (cable) industry has not developed a home converter that will do everything they want to do to protect themselves that is compatible with TV sets and VCRs. If they're going to introduce this equipment that circumvents VCR and television set features," said Tanza, "there should be no installation charge or monthly rent.
"They're going to make their money back--they should incur the cost," he said.
Furthermore, Tanza added, "We are furious and incensed that we cannot get through to Century on the telephone--and we will not stand for that."
Tanza said: "We cannot control the rates--they are mandated by a franchise that we inherited from the county--but we will not stand for poor customer service. They had better get their act together in terms of the telephones," he said.
Budd Kops, a landlord and businessman, said at the meeting, "I tried calling repeatedly and either got no answer after 55 rings or 'Century--please hold.' "
Century's Rosendahl pledged improvement. "It is our job to provide good customer service," he said, adding: "When you introduce 8,000 new converters you're going to get a lot of inquiries on how it works. We are installing six additional trunk (telephone) lines and seven rotary lines. GTE assures me that they will be in place by the end of the week."
Rosendahl further promised the audience that every grievance aired at the meeting would be cleared up within a week.
City Administrator Tanza said he believes that the present dissatisfaction with cable services is exacerbated by escalating rates charged for cable service in the wake of federal deregulation.
"We have been frustrated by the U.S. Cable Act of 1984, which deregulated cable," he said in an interview. "We feel like our hands are tied. In most of the major cities of America, the regulating authority no longer has the authority to regulate rates." He believes that deregulation has "put the squeeze" on subscribers, and anticipates even further increases.
"Wherever you had an old system that went through this kind of upgrade, you had these kinds of adjustment problems," Tanza said. "What made a big difference in West Hollywood is that the cable operator took the basic cable rate last year from $8 a month to $12. Now they're introducing a box that is adding another $5 to the bill."
He said West Hollywood is considering the option of franchising a second cable company, "so that residents will have a choice." Tanza pointed out that West Hollywood's extraordinarily dense subscription base--"12,000 subscribers with respectable disposable incomes within two square miles"--might successfully support a second system.
Ron Stone, who led the city's drive to incorporate and then headed its telecommunications task force, said a detailed study conducted by his committee concluded that operating its own cable system would be disadvantageous to the city. He proposed that West Hollywood instead consider using one of the two channels allocated to it by Century under the franchise agreement to provide programming of its choosing.
"It would be a revolutionary concept in the United States," Stone said, "viewers determining through the ballot box what they see on their screen."
Response in 2 Weeks
Rosendahl agreed that Century would provide a written response in two weeks to the grievances. Heilman said the city's staff would carefully examine the franchise licensing agreement to see whether Century was in compliance. The council would, he said, continue talking with Century but also explore all options, including operating its own cable system and revoking the franchise. After appointing a group of volunteers to act as a liaison to the city council, he adjourned the meeting and said another public meeting would be held in six weeks.
In a grim postscript to the meeting, Santa Monica police reported searching Century's office Wednesday morning after it had been evacuated following reports of three bomb threats from an anonymous caller. Two police searches turned up nothing.
Heilman called the phone threats "appalling," saying: "We are trying to work with Century to resolve our differences. That kind of action has no place here." Community activist Shapiro also condemned the act. "We are a law-abiding community," she said.