More than 60 irate West Hollywood cable-television subscribers crowded into Plummer Park's Long Hall on Tuesday night to protest installation by Century Communications Corp. of high-tech converter boxes that impair the remote-control and programming features of so-called "cable-ready" television sets and videocassette recorders.
Complaints centered on installation of TOCOM converter boxes in 8,000 West Hollywood households, and on the firm's phone and technical services.
Many rankled cable subscribers told Councilman John Heilman, who chaired the meeting, that they want the converters removed because they are difficult to operate. Others said they wanted the company to provide auxiliary equipment to make the converters compatible, free of charge.
"Century Cable says that its converter boxes make it possible for the company to provide you with additional channels--whether you want them or not," said Jorian Clair, one of the meeting's organizers. "What they don't tell subscribers is that the company's system is not totally compatible with television sets and VCRs in customers' homes."
"I don't recall when a public issue has caused so much furor in our city," said Ethel Shapiro, a community activist who organized the meeting for residents to express dissatisfaction to City Council members and Century Communications Corp. representatives over changes in their cable service. According to council members, turnout was greater than for any issue since rent control.
Shapiro's statement that she plans to drop premium channels if Century does not address consumers' complaints was greeted with cheers. "Many people paid hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of dollars for their equipment," she said. "We want them (the cable firm) to make their system compatible with the receivers and systems we have at home."
Four of the city's five council members--Heilman, Abbe Land, Stephen Schulte and Helen Albert--as well as City Manager Paul Brotzman and mayor's deputy Paul Koretz attended the meeting. Heilman said the city is hopeful that a solution can be found. Although some subscribers have talked of a boycott, he said that would have to come from the community, not the city.
Disparity of Technologies
Century's vice president, William J. Rosendahl, responded to the grievances by saying that an unfortunate disparity exists between the technologies of consumer electronics and the cable industry. But the TOCOM converters, he said, are needed to upgrade the cable system according to the terms of a contract with the city and to protect the firm against theft of its signal.
"The problem (of incompatibility) is not created by the cable company, but by technology. There is no other technology on the shelf that is any more state of the art than what we have introduced into West Hollywood," he said.
Rosendahl introduced technical experts from TOCOM and Century, who explained that modern television sets and VCRs are not in fact "cable ready" at all. They demonstrated a combination of auxiliary equipment--including "A/B switches," "splitters" and additional converters--that can restore all remote-control and VCR functions. Century sells a package of such equipment, excluding the extra converters, for $7.50 including installation if purchased when the converter is installed, or $22.50 if purchased later.
In an interview before the meeting, Michael Harris, Century's vice president for engineering, said comparable auxiliary equipment could also be purchased at any major electronic parts store and installed easily by a subscriber with the aid of printed instructions, which Century provides at its office.
Rosendahl explained that the 17-year-old West Hollywood cable system, one of the oldest in the nation, contained no protection against theft--a major problem--or provision for innovations such as pay-per-view. "It was built so that people in the hills could get decent reception," he said, "not for premium channels."
Under the old system, Rosendahl said, clear cable signals, including premium channels, were sent out to all subscriber households. A small device called a trap screened out all channels for which a subscriber was not paying. The traps were inefficient, he said, not only because they could only accommodate a limited number of channels and were very susceptible to tampering and theft, but also because they required a service call every time a subscriber added or dropped a premium channel.
The newly installed TOCOM devices can expand the system from the current 36 channels to 54, as mandated by the franchise agreement. And the converters enable Century to scramble transmission of its premium channels.