Community Finally Gets Its MTV

November 20, 1986|GERI SPIELER | Spieler is a Calabasas free-lance writer.

The residents of Calabasas Park have their silver Mercedes Benzes and black BMWs, their own lake, country club and tennis club. With an average household income of $69,000 a year, the residential enclave is touted as one of the most prestigious communities in the San Fernando Valley.

But for years there was only the most basic TV service in Calabasas Park. Homeowners could afford to buy VCRs and big-screen televisions. Yet cries of "I want my MTV!" fell on deaf ears.

The residents had tried in a number of ways to bring upgraded cable television to their living rooms. Finally one group succeeded.

The new heroes call themselves Calavision. Since the first of this month, Calavision has broadcast to Calabasas Park the wonders of HBO, Showtime and Cinemax, C-SPAN and MTV. But the fledgling cable system has had a rough reception and a history of bitterness to overcome.

'We Delivered'

"I think people were skeptical because the previous company had promised them time and time again and nothing happened," said Carol Legge, operations manager at the 11-month-old company. "We've delivered."

When Bechtel Corp. and Southern California Edison joined to build Calabasas Park in the mid-1960s, Calabasas Communications Company was created as a subsidiary to serve the television needs of the master-planned community.

"With the strict building code out there, TV antennas were prohibited so we had to put in underground utilities, including cable," said Bob Umbaugh, President of Mission Land Company, a subsidiary of Southern California Edison. "It was an old system and very limited in its capacity for additional channels."

Thus, when the cable-TV boom started in the mid-1970s, Calabasas Park residents saw neighboring communities pass them by in the home-entertainment revolution.

Resident Moved Away

One resident became so disgusted that he moved a mile away and became part of the Group W Cable area. Another homeowner cancelled his cable service. Nothing happened.

Three years ago Sal Forlenza tried to solve the Park residents' cable deprivation with an innovative proposal: "We could have put up our own satellite dishes in several locations or at the end of every three blocks," Forlenza said. "It's ridiculous to live in such an affluent area, spend all that money to live in Calabasas Park with all those accouterments and not have cable."

The plan never came to pass. At the same time, several groups of residents tried to buy out Calabasas Communications Company. Their attempts were unsuccessful.

Then came Calavision.

Chosen Over 4 Other Bids

It started when Garry Spire, 32, and Larry Rogow, 32, of Ventech, a technical consulting company, joined with Calabasas Park resident Ira Wechsler, 41, a national radio representative.

This partnership won out over four other competitors in the bidding to buy Calabasas Communications.

"We were chosen over the others because I, for one, live here and we care about this community," said Wechsler. "I would like to do something here with the local access channel and the high school. I've never had cable before, this is fun!"

Calavision took ownership in December, 1985, and put almost $250,000 into new equipment such as satellite antennas and other electronic components.

But the new company was playing to a tough audience: some of the subscribers were people in the cable and entertainment industry. And Calavision started off with a misstep.

$1.20 Rate Increase

Last April, the company sent out bills of $12.95 for basic service, which represented a $1.20 increase over the rate residents had previously been paying.

Designer fur flew at a May homeowners meeting where, according to Jim Foley, president of the Calabasas Park Homeowner Assn., Calavision officials blamed the rate increase on the county government.

Claus Marx, Chief of Leasing and Revenue for Los Angeles County, said the rate hike had nothing to do with his office.

"I never forced them to make an increase," Marx said. "I did ask them to upgrade the system. We were going to write to the residents and refute that statement but I hear it's been resolved."

Spire took care of that, at a later meeting where he addressed subscribers and made amends.

Calavision's biggest problem then became surviving as an affluent ant among giants. Compared with other systems, Calavision has a very small subscriber base. The Park has 3,000 acres of land which includes a fairly new area called Vista Pointe, a gated community. Right now 650 homes are hooked up. This is small action compared to Group W Cable's 3,200 subscribers in neighboring Woodland Hills.

"Keeping our rates in line with giants on both sides is difficult," Spire said.

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