Cubbies Can Return to Avalon, Thanks to Tinkerer's Cable TV

September 19, 1985|JULIO MORAN | Times Staff Writer

AVALON — Cable television has come to this Santa Catalina Island tourist town, thanks to an electrical engineer-turned-storekeeper who says he is running the system for fun as much as for profit.

For the third of the city's 2,100 permanent residents who get a poor television picture because of the island's coves and hills, cable means better reception. For the many Chicago Cubs baseball fans here, whose loyalty stems from the 30 years--until 1951--that the team held spring training on the island, it will offer a chance to watch Cubs games via satellite on Chicago station WGN.

For Ralph Morrow Jr., who formed Catalina Cable TV and beat out two mainland companies for the 10-year franchise, it means another opportunity to tinker with electronics.

A successful electrical engineer for McDonnell Douglas Astronautic Co. in Huntington Beach, he "retired" 10 years ago--at age 38--to seek a quieter life and to run the Catalina Island Department Store, which he and his wife Pat had bought in 1973.

The store did well, but Morrow says he still had an urge to dabble in electronics. So he opened Catalina Electronics Co. to repair television sets and install master antennas on condominiums and hotels.

The success of both businesses allowed him to borrow $200,000 to build his 23-channel cable system, which has 1,480 potential subscribers.

"It's not going to make anyone super rich," said Morrow, a gregarious, talkative guy with a loud laugh, "but we're going to have fun with this system."

Not Lowest Bid

Morrow's bid did not offer the lowest price, but he said it was the most realistic.

"One of the companies offered free hookups and a $3-a-month fee for basic cable service. People in town asked me if I could offer that. I said no. If someone offers that price they are not going to make any money. They would quickly be back and ask for rate increases. I'm not saying I won't raise my prices, but mine are more realistic."

Morrow will charge $12.95 for the basic cable serve and an additional $10.95 for those who subscribe to movie channels.

It also helped that he was an islander, he said.

"Obviously, the thing that got me the franchise was that people knew me in town," he said. "They had faith in my judgment."

City Manager John Longley downplays the local-boy angle, saying Morrow's bid was "simply the best proposal."

The franchise was awarded to Morrow because of the number of channels he offered, 23, the price to subscribers and the 5% fee to be paid to the city annually.

Morrow spent most of his $200,000 investment on state-of-the-art equipment. His system will be "addressable," which means he will be able to gauge viewer preferences, provide pay-per-view programming such as sports events and special movies and, most important, be able to detect illegal connections.

Morrow said he will break even on his investment in less than seven years if he averages between 500 and 600 subscribers. He already has 500 names on a waiting list and said he expects to average about 700 customers.

Some Already Connected

Morrow connected his first customers last week. Residents of the 100-unit Canyon Terrace and Sol Vista condominiums will get basic cable service as part of their homeowner association fees. He said he expects to make cable available to the entire city by the end of the year.

Dick Waterman, a spokesman for Group W Cable, said his company looked at providing service in this small tourist town three or four years ago, but concluded that the return on investment would not be sufficient.

One way Morrow hopes to make his system profitable is to maintain a low overhead and have only three full-time employees: a receptionist-secretary to take phone orders and maintain books, a technician to help operate the control board and make installations, and Morrow, who will do the same.

"So big deal, I'm the owner," said Morrow. "All the owner does is get to write the checks and clean the toilets. Over here you have to get involved."

Volunteers Help

Morrow hired a professional crew from the mainland to string cable from telephone poles, but much of the other work has been volunteered by friends eager to get the system on line.

Most anxious are residents in the northwest side of town, such as Paxson (Packy) Offield, a vice president with the Santa Catalina Island Co., which owns most of the land in the city.

"Reception is perhaps my biggest reason for getting it," Offield said, although it will be another month before he is connected. "I can't get Channel 28. I got three kids so that's a must." The public television channel carries educational programs.

"The other big reason, I must confess, is ESPN (an all-sports channel). It will also be great to pick up WGN and watch Cubs games. That's my hometown. I grew up with the Cubs."

(Offield is the great-grandson of William Wrigley Jr., who developed Avalon and once owned the Cubs.)

Some Are Nonchalant

Other residents seemed nonchalant about the arrival of high technology to the island.

"It was something that was needed, just like any other city," Mayor George Scott said. "But I'm not much of a TV watcher anyway."

Lolo Saldana, who with his brother, Frank, runs the town's only barbershop, said he will not be getting cable in his shop.

"What for?" he asked. "People will just come in and watch the games and not get haircuts."

Les Mathis, who manages the Avalon Theatre, said he doesn't expect cable TV to affect his business much because most customers are tourists during the summer, when he is open every night. Tourists don't come to Avalon to watch TV, he said.

During the winter, he said, when the theater is only open Thursday through Sunday, islanders will come simply because "they want to get out of the house."

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