LONG BEACH — The City Council on Tuesday approved the $53-million sale of the city's cable television franchise to a small Connecticut firm, despite concerns from one councilman and continued protest by conservative Christians opposed to sexually explicit programming.
With the approval, Simmons Communications Inc. says it can go ahead with purchase of the cable franchise and take over operation, possibly within the next month.
The council voted 7 to 1, with Councilman Edd Tuttle absent, to allow Simmons to purchase the 39,000-subscriber franchise from Times Mirror Cable Television Inc. and Knight-Ridder Cable Television Inc. Times Mirror and Knight-Ridder have operated the Long Beach system, called Dimension Cable, on a joint basis since 1982.
Will Not Show Playboy Channel
Prior to the vote, Steven Simmons, president and chief executive officer of the cable firm, promised that as long as he owns the cable system it will not show the Playboy Channel, which was most frequently mentioned by fundamentalist critics as an example of adult programming.
Councilman Warren Harwood opposed the deal, saying he felt the city was "losing too many rights with too little benefit in return."
Harwood questioned whether the city should allow the sale to a small firm that lacks the financial clout and corporate guarantees of Times Mirror and Knight-Ridder.
In addition, Harwood said he felt the council was not demanding enough concessions, such as more studio space for the production of public-access programming.
Noting his colleagues' solid support for the deal, Harwood said, "I see this whole thing is rolling like it has a motion of its own."
Council Members Enthusiastic
Other council members gushed enthusiastically about the sale, heralding Simmons Communications as a firm that will work hard to offer good cable service.
Councilman Marc Wilder said the approval was "a blue-ribbon day" for the city and called Simmons "a welcome addition" to the community.
"We need more corporate neighbors of your caliber," Wilder said, adding that he felt Simmons Communications would be "a cable company that's going to shine in Southern California."
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 Simmons and the Times Mirror and Knight-Ridder partnership had agreed to the sale, the deal by law had to be approved by the City Council.
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 publishes the Long Beach Press-Telegram.
Executives at the two firms agreed to sell the Long Beach system after Knight-Ridder decided to limit its cable operations to the eastern half of the country, according to Kathy Flanagan, director of corporate affairs for Times Mirror Cable Television.
Simmons told the council his firm will be able to offer improved service, just as it has with other franchises it has acquired.
He also pledged that his firm would not show the Playboy Channel on the Long Beach cable system "as long as we're here." As late as last week, Simmons had been unwilling to make such an ironclad promise, saying instead that the firm would base its programming decisions on marketing data.
The promise, however, did little to defuse the protest of several conservative Christians, who steadfastly maintained that Simmons might go back on his pledge.
"A man's word in today's society is not good in a court of law," said Craig Garbe, a spokesman for the Long Beach Coalition for Traditional Values, a fundamentalist Christian group.
Dimension Cable currently does not offer the Playboy Channel. Simmons said about half the cable systems operated by his firm broadcast the channel.
Garbe has insisted that the economic pressure to attract new subscribers would force Simmons to begin broadcasting the Playboy Channel and other racy programs.
Since the city gets a 3% cut of the cable franchise's gross earnings, the broadcast of adult programming "makes the city a pimp," Garbe said. He describes pornography as nudity and the actual or simulated enactment of lewd acts or sex.
Garbe called on the council to either block the sale or require Simmons Communication to draw up a written pledge that it would not broadcast pornography.
City Atty. Robert Parkin said, however, that such an agreement could not be enforced because it would be an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.
Mayor Ernie Kell, meanwhile, insisted that Simmons would stick by his pledge to not show the Playboy Channel.
"I think a man's word is an important commodity, and in most cases I find a man does keep his word," Kell said.
He also noted that the city had "more guarantees" from Simmons Communication "than we've every gotten from the current operation" on the broadcasting of pornography. "We're actually gaining on the issue of pornographic materials with Mr. Simmons," Kell said.
But other council members were wary. Councilman James Wilson wondered if the cable operator's "assurances of 'never, never,' may be more a case of 'never, now.' "