LONG BEACH — With the sale of this city's cable television franchise looming, Councilman Warren Harwood and a conservative Christian group have raised concerns that the firm trying to buy the outlet might begin broadcasting sexually explicit programs.
But officials at Simmons Communications Inc., the Connecticut-based cable firm that wants to buy the Long Beach franchise, maintain that the company has no plans to offer the Playboy Channel or similar programming. The firm would consider offering such fare only if marketing surveys showed a large demand, a spokesman said.
Simmons is attempting to purchase the 39,000-subscriber cable system from Times Mirror Cable Television Inc. and Knight-Ridder Cable Television Inc., which own the Long Beach franchise jointly. Times Mirror Cable Television is a subsidiary of Times Mirror Co., which publishes the Los Angeles Times, while the parent organization of Knight-Ridder Cable Television is Knight-Ridder Inc., publisher of the Long Beach Press-Telegram.
Officials at Simmons Communications Inc., a 3-year-old firm that operates 14 separate cable systems serving 48,000 subscribers in five eastern states, say they want to make the Long Beach franchise their flagship and hope to boost the number of subscribers to more than 60,000 households.
Although both sides have agreed to the $53-million sale, the deal must be approved by the City Council. The council may decide the matter after a public hearing scheduled Tuesday at City Hall.
Harwood said he would like to see the council block the transaction, in large part because of the possibility that Simmons might begin broadcasting the Playboy Channel. Currently, the Long Beach cable system does not offer such adult entertainment programming.
In addition, the councilman has expressed concerns that Simmons Communications lacks the financial strength to effectively operate the cable franchise, a charge that Simmons officials have steadfastly denied.
Harwood and leaders of the Long Beach Coalition for Traditional Values, a conservative Christian group composed of more than 50 local clergymen, maintain that the cable firm would offer sexually explicit programming in an effort to attract new subscribers and boost its profits.
"The profit motive is going to be so strong that Simmons will be pushed into bringing in programming like the Playboy Channel," said Craig Garbe, spokesman for the Long Beach Coalition for Traditional Values.
If the franchise were sold to a larger cable television firm, there would be less of an economic need to provide such pro gramming, Harwood said. "A stronger firm might well use better discretion in choosing the programming it offers," he said.
Because the city receives a 3% share of the cable franchise's gross earnings, city officials must take full responsibility for the programming that is offered to subscribers, Harwood said.
"In effect, we're a partner," Harwood said. "If sexually explicit programming is offered, we'd be reaping profit from pornography, which I think is inappropriate for a public agency."
'No Plans Whatsoever'
Steven Simmons, president and chief executive officer of Simmons Communications, said his firm currently has "no plans whatsoever" to offer the Playboy Channel.
"I am very sympathetic with those who have problems with this kind of programming," Simmons said. "I have a family and I understand the concern."
Nonetheless, Simmons acknowledged that the firm may eventually consider offering the Playboy Channel. After the sale is completed, Simmons said, his firm would conduct a survey of subscribers to determine the types of entertainment programming they want. If the demand for the Playboy Channel were great enough, the firm might offer the programming, Simmons said.
"Since there is a great deal of sensitivity attached to this issue, there would have to be a very strong demand," he said. "It's not the kind of service that we would offer because there is a small marketing demand. It's not a decision we would take lightly."
Simmons Communications offers the Playboy Channel over about half of the cable systems it operates.
If the Playboy Channel is eventually offered, Simmons said the company would provide "lock boxes" at no cost to its subscribers. With such a device, an adult can use a key to temporarily disconnect a channel.
Adept at Tuning In
But Garbe said that system is not perfect because children have become notoriously adept at "getting around" such devices. "The safeguards these companies claim in actuality aren't safeguards at all," he said.
Garbe said his group is not against sale of the cable franchise to Simmons Communications, but wants assurances from the firm that it will not begin broadcasting sexually explicit programs, which he said contribute to what he described as a decline in moral values.
Simmons said he doubted the firm would ever agree to a ban on sexually explicit shows.