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Subscribers View Better Cable Service

June 22, 1989|JULIO MORAN | Times Staff Writer

The picture for cable television service on the Westside--which has been notorious for its disruptions, poor customer relations and outdated equipment--is getting brighter.

The Westside's two primary cable operators--Century Cable in the north and American Cablesystems in the south--are spending millions of dollars to upgrade their systems.

Falcon Cable, which provides service in Malibu and Topanga and a small corner of Pacific Palisades, has also upgraded its system recently.

Industry spokesmen say this means customers' telephone calls will be answered quicker, home service calls will be made more promptly and subscribers will get more viewing choices.

That's good news for subscribers of Century Cable, which has been heavily criticized by both subscribers and city officials throughout the Westside ever since the company took over cable franchises in 1987 in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and parts of Los Angeles from Pacific Palisades to the Hollywood Hills.

Century Southwest Cable Television, a subsidiary of Century Communications Corp. in New Canaan, Conn., took over the Westside cable systems as part of a five-company consortium that bought Group W Cable for $2.1 billion from Westinghouse Electric Corp.

Century is in the second year of a six-year, $50-million program to upgrade the systems. Although the improvements will not be completed until 1993, the number of complaints is dwindling.

"Their problems relative to customer service and technical service have reduced greatly," said Ian Tanza, West Hollywood's cable/arts administrator.

"Complaints are way down," said Fred Cunningham, who oversees cable matters for Beverly Hills.

"I have never been happier than I am today," said William J. Rosendahl, vice president of corporate affairs for Century.

Century has been a repeated target of vandals who have damaged equipment or disrupted signals--often during broadcasts of major sports or entertainment events. Until recently, service was so bad that it was widely believed the vandals were disgruntled customers, but Rosendahl said he is convinced that could not be the case.

"I can't believe someone would commit a criminal act over poor service," he said. "It must be some sick, deranged individual."

Rosendahl blames many of the company's problems on the antiquated equipment it inherited. The technology was so outdated that customers could easily steal the service by illegally connecting to cable lines on telephone poles with coaxial cables sold at hardware stores.

Modernization of the system makes the signals difficult to steal. Some former pirates complained to Century when they could no longer get cable service free, Rosendahl said.

Century also drew many complaints when it attempted to serve more than 76,000 Westside customers from a single office in Santa Monica. Last November, Century opened a second office in West Hollywood to serve that city and Beverly Hills.

"It's still far from perfect, but their service has improved dramatically," said West Hollywood Councilman Paul Koretz, an outspoken critic of Century. "It used to be that people would wait 45 minutes on hold, then when someone picked up, you were disconnected."

To most subscribers, the most noticeable modernization involves the installation of converter boxes in the homes of subscribers. The new converters, an option available at extra cost, allow Century to offer pay-per-view events such as championship fights and recently released movies.

Basic service--which usually includes all channels that can be received with a regular television antenna plus cable channels such as ESPN, MTV, CNN and WTBS--can be received without a converter box.

Century has completed its converter-box installations in West Hollywood, but installations are in progress in Beverly Hills and much of West Los Angeles and have yet to begin in Santa Monica.

It has not been a trouble-free process.. Many Century customers in West Hollywood complained because the boxes disable remote controls on televisions and videotape recorders, and prevent viewers from watching one channel while recording another.

Those problems have been remedied, Rosendahl said, by providing customers with remote controls for the boxes and installing switches that make it possible to view one channel and record off another.

In Beverly Hills, Century was fined a total of $29,250 last year--$250 a day for 117 days in which it did not respond to service calls or promptly answer the telephone as required by the franchise agreement.

But Fred Cunningham, who oversees the franchise for the city, said there has been a definite improvement in service.

"They have been meeting customer service requirements of responding to calls within 24 hours and answering the phone within two minutes," Cunningham said.

Cunningham said that Century learned a lesson from its West Hollywood experience and has begun a public relations program to prepare subscribers for the installation of the new coverter boxes in Beverly Hills.

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