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Cable TV Fee Plan Called 'Dirty Pool'

March 10, 1985|JULIO MORAN | Times Staff Writer

TORRANCE — A proposal by Group W Cable to increase rates and cut promised services because of higher-than-expected construction and operating costs has met with strong opposition by city officials.

At last week's City Council meeting, two days after the proposal was submitted, councilman Bill Applegate lashed out at the cable company, accusing it of trying to renege on its contract.

"They say they grossly underestimated the cost to build. Well, that's too bad," he said. "They said they're not getting a favorable return. Well, that's too bad too. We didn't guarantee them a cost-plus contract."

"It was a contract they freely entered into," said Mayor Jim Armstrong. "It's set in writing."

City Cable Administrator Warren Carter was even more blunt: "I am distressed by the unconscionable act of the cable operator to be taking advantage of the law in a manner in which its makers never intendeded. I would go so far to say that our cable operator is playing dirty pool."

Rate Deregulation

The federal Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 deregulated all rates except basic service as of Dec. 29, 1984. Local control over basic service rates will be lost Dec. 29, 1986. Other conditions of a franchise agreement are not affected.

However, last year Group W promised not to raise rates until 1986. The cable company made the promise as a compromise in a dispute with the city over the deadline for completing construction of the system. Group W was given an additional nine months and met the October, 1984, deadline.

Group W's proposal will probably be included in an April 16 public hearing originally set to evaluate the company's performance in its first three years. Such an evaluation is to be held every three years, according to the 15-year franchise agreement that was awarded in 1982.

Carter said an independent cable consultant will probably evaluate the proposal, in addition to the staff study, which is still incomplete.

What Is Being Asked

In its proposal, the first attempt to revise a cable franchise in the South Bay, Group W is asking:

- For a rate increase in June or July from $6.95 to $8.95 for basic service and from $7.95 to $9.95 for premium channels such as HBO and the Movie Channel.

- To deactivate the second of a dual-cable system, which would reduce the number of channels from 120 to 60.

- To consolidate staff, equipment and channels for community programming, or so-called public access, with Group W's systems in Lawndale, Hawthorne and Gardena.

(Group W will separately renegotiate the franchises in the other South Bay cities. Officials from those cities said they are reserving comment until the proposal is fully evaluated by their staffs.)

Larry Windsor, Group W's general manager in Torrance, said he believes that when his proposal is fully analyzed, the city will understand that the proposed changes are fair and necessary.

To Avoid Litigation

He said he is going to the city with his proposal, although he feels many of the company's requests could be achieved without City Council approval, because "we're trying to avoid what other systems have done and just make the changes and end up in court."

In the 20-page proposal, Group W's regional director of corporate affairs, Richard Waterman, said the changes were needed because "an adequate financial return on its investment . . . is not being achieved."

He said the company has spent $31 million rather than the $16 million it estimated it would cost to build the system for 48,000 homes. About 24,000 households subscribe. Waterman said a significant part of the problem stems from additional miles of cable that had to be installed because the city's original request for proposals miscalculated the distance by 108 miles.

In addition, he said, the more expensive underground cable installation was three times the estimate in the bid because the city did not allow the company to crisscross streets. Instead, the cable was laid down one side of the street and then the other side.

Increasing Costs

Waterman said operating costs have increased because the costs of programs have increased. As an example, Waterman said, ESPN, an all-sports channel, initially paid cable systems four cents per subscriber to run its program. But now ESPN now charges systems 15 cents per subscriber for the programming.

Waterman said the system had a $1-million net operating loss through 1984, compared to projected losses of only $170,000 for the same period.

"Industry and Wall Street projections and forecasts have been revised to reflect marketplace realities," he said. "Some have strengthened the industry by removing many of the blue-sky forecasts that plague most high-tech businesses early in their development."

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