If a New York-based cable television network has its way, Oxnard City Council members will soon ponder the burning question: Which is better--an evening with "Miami Vice" or an evening with an old movie?
Such questions lie at the heart of an industry dispute that the USA Network wants Oxnard to help decide. City staff members, however, are not certain whether they will recommend that the city get involved.
Jones Intercable, the Denver-based cable giant that provides service to 31,300 subscribers in Oxnard and Port Hueneme, dropped the offerings of the USA Network from its bill of fare in October, deeming most of them too violent. It replaced USA, whose lineup includes "Miami Vice," "Murder, She Wrote" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," with Turner Network Television, which features mainly vintage films.
In return, a miffed USA Network ran advertisements in local newspapers asking Oxnard viewers to complain to the network or to City Hall.
"Thanks to Jones Intercable," read the last round of ads, which touted a Nov. 8 broadcast of the World Wrestling Federation's Championships, "Oxnard is going to miss the real showdown on Election Night."
Since similar ads first appeared in mid-October, 124 residents have aired their grievances to city officials, said Bill Mayer, director of the city's Management and Budget Department, which handles Oxnard's 15-year franchise with Jones Intercable. Network officials said they have received several hundred more calls from Oxnard.
"People are upset," said Bill Koplovitz, a consultant for USA Network. "They don't want someone in Denver telling them what they should or shouldn't watch."
The City Council hearing sought by USA Network would determine whether Jones Intercable may have violated the Cable Communications Act of 1984. The law requires a cable company to demonstrate that a cancellation will not affect the "mixed quality and level of services required by the franchise at the time it was granted."
But to determine whether a violation has occured, City Council members would have to decide whether the two networks are comparable--something that Glenn Jones, the founder of Jones Intercable, views as his job.
Jones said he decided to replace USA Network, which carries a range of television shows from children's programs to wrestling matches, because it is "too violent." By contrast, he said, TNT, which was introduced early last month by Turner Broadcasting System, is "more wholesome."
"It's like with an editor in a newspaper," said Jones, who also serves as the company's chief executive officer. "You certainly wouldn't expect anyone from the Los Angeles City Council to tell you what editorials or cartoons you run."
Peter Ainselie, executive editor of Channels Magazine, a monthly business magazine on the cable industry, characterized Jones' complaints about USA as "disingenuous. It's what's on every independent station in the land. If they followed through with that reasoning, they'd have to take off NBC, ABC and CBS."
Members of Oxnard's city staff have not decided whether on Dec. 16, when the matter is scheduled to come before them, they will recommend that council members hold a hearing at a later date. They also are not sure that a violation of cable regulations would necessarily lead to cancellation of the city's franchise with Jones when it comes up for renewal in 1997.
Oxnard City Atty. Gary Gillig said the city has a responsibility to monitor Jones' compliance with the Cable Communications Act. But he also said that deregulation of the cable industry, made possible by the same act, left franchising entities such as the City of Oxnard with little control over programming.
The matter is further complicated by the fact that the substitution comes at a time when USA Network is increasing its rates by 70% over 2 years. The act gives cable companies the right to substitute programming when it becomes too costly, city officials said.
Oxnard is not alone in the quandary.
USA Network has launched a similar campaign in six other cities where the network was also dropped. In Tampa, Fla., Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Albuquerque, N.M., city councils have set hearings on the matter, Koplovitz said. Ad campaigns also have been launched in Lockport, N.Y., Augusta, Ga., and Janesville, Wisc.
And in Buffalo, Minn. , a cable commission for 10 small communities blocked Jones' plans to drop the network after a Sept. 20 hearing, Koplovitz said.
The cancellation also has spawned a court battle. In a suit filed in U.S. District Court in New York, USA Network has alleged that Jones Intercable violated its contract Oct. 3 when it stopped providing the network's programming to 600,000 households across the U.S, including those in Oxnard.
Some observers chalk up the controversy to the landmark nature of the cancellation.
Larry Gerbrandt, senior analyst with the Carmel-based media research and investment firm of Paul Kagan Associates, said it marked the first time a cable company had cancelled a major network. Cable companies routinely switch smaller networks based on cost or ratings, but USA Network claims to be the fourth-largest cable network in the country, with 45 million viewers.
"There are a group of networks that are thought of as must-carries--such as ESPN, MTV and CNN," Gerbrandt said. "USA used to be thought of in this category. What we're seeing is a whole new concept being tested.
"It's an issue that's going to come up increasingly in the future," he added. "The real question is whether city councils want to become programming entities."