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Cable TV Firm Seeks Santa Monica Franchise : Century Southwest Under Fire in Other Cities Because of Customer Complaints

February 07, 1988|ROSANNE KEYNAN | Times Staff Writer

The City of Santa Monica is negotiating a franchise agreement with Century Southwest Cable Television, a firm that has come under fire in West Hollywood and other cities because of customer service complaints.

Century has been operating Santa Monica's cable system without a contract since September, 1986, when the firm's franchise was terminated. The city claimed breach of contract because it had not granted approval of transfer of stock to Century from the previous franchise holder, Group W, a subsidiary of Westinghouse Electric Corp.

Assistant City Manager Lynne C. Barrette, Santa Monica's chief cable negotiator, said she will present a lengthy report addressing all issues that will be part of the franchise agreement, including customer service, at a City Council meeting Feb. 23.

In 1986, when Westinghouse sold Group W--a nationwide cable operation--to a consortium of cable companies, Century took over operations in Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, Beverly Hills, Westwood, West Los Angeles, Marina del Rey, West Hollywood and Eagle Rock.

In West Hollywood, irate cable subscribers called a public meeting on Jan. 26 to voice complaints about poor phone response, bad reception and billing problems. Customers have also complained that high-tech converter boxes to prevent signal theft are incompatible with "cable-ready" TV sets and video recorders.

"We are swamped with phone calls," said Ian Tanza, West Hollywood's cable television administrator.

"Century has yet to make good its promise to correct the phone situation," he said. "Subscribers still cannot get through. And we anxiously await Century's response to our written notification regarding its problems.

"Unless they resolve the phone situation in the next week, we're going to step up our action against them. I can't go into detail about that, but the City Council is extremely concerned about poor customer service."

William J. Rosendahl, Century's vice president, said last week that the phone problem is being remedied.

"Our phone systems are being reconfigured, with more incoming lines, more trunk lines in place and more personnel manning those lines," he said.

He said capacity was to be expanded from 17 to 30 trunk lines within two weeks.

He said that local-call lines from West Hollywood were being doubled, from six to 12, and that Century was training seven new people to answer the phones.

Beverly Hills renewed its franchise agreement with Century last year. According to Fred C. Cunningham, who administered cable affairs for the city during the time of the transfer, the city has been receiving numerous complaints about subscribers' inability to get through to Century by phone and the firm's slow response in making repairs.

"What we've been doing," he said, "is calling Century ourselves and having them call the customers back."

Cunningham said that during November and December of last year, 134 complaint calls were received by the Beverly Hills City Hall cable hot line. "Over the past two or three months, there have been a lot of outages, and people call in when their picture fails," he said.

Century has "to improve dramatically," Cunningham said, "and that's what we're working on. They've got standards they've got to meet." For example, the city requires that the firm answer phone calls within two minutes during peak viewing time.

"We're working closely with Century on customer service," he said. "They advised me that they've added nine more people on the phone."

Cunningham said the antiquated Beverly Hills cable system is being upgraded by Century under a requirement of the franchise agreement.

An old cable system also has proved problematic in parts of Los Angeles, according to Susan Herman, general manager of the city's Department of Telecommunication. The department administers the franchises of 12 cable companies, including Century.

"Our problems are about poor reception and intermittent outages from a decrepit system about to be rebuilt," Herman said.

"Century is the No. 1 company in terms of complaints," she said. In December, 1987, she said, Century accounted for 45% of complaint calls concerning all 12 cable companies administered by her department.

Most complaints are about poor signal quality, she said, and complaints about lack of phone response were eased when the firm installed a new phone system at one of its offices.

"I think (Century) has a way to go yet. They obviously are not our best company," Herman said, "but they are aware and attempting to address the problem."

In Marina del Rey, Century recently installed the same kind of converter boxes that sparked complaints in West Hollywood and, according to Rosendahl, "didn't receive a single complaint call."

"We've had no complaints from marina residents," said Jim Thornton, who serves as the franchise officer for Los Angeles County, which administers cable service for Marina del Rey.

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