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Getting Clear Picture of Cable and Pay TV

March 14, 1985|DON G. CAMPBELL | 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

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