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2 Cities Roll Back Basic Rate Charged by Century Cable : Regulation: West Hollywood and Beverly Hills are among first nationally to implement a federal law giving them the right to oversee cable service.

March 10, 1994|KEN ELLINGWOOD and G. JEANETTE AVENT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

West Hollywood and Beverly Hills this week ordered Century Cable to cut the price of basic cable television, becoming pioneers in the uncharted realm of local cable regulation.

West Hollywood residents who protested recent cable hikes applauded Monday as the City Council unanimously approved a rate cut of nearly $4 from the $24.08-a-month cost of basic cable. Beverly Hills followed suit Tuesday, directing Century to chop the price of the same package by $1.68.

The cities also directed Century to pay refunds going back to Sept. 1, when regulation of cable service began.

The two communities are among the first in the nation to make use of a new federal law granting municipalities the right to regulate the cost of the most basic cable service. The 1992 law ended a six-year period of deregulation that saw rapidly rising cable prices. Other Westside communities are studying their cable rates as a possible first step toward regulation.

Seldom has a vote looked like such sweet revenge as in West Hollywood, where hundreds of residents complained last year when Century repackaged its channels in such a way that subscribers had to pay about $8 more to keep the same programming. Several angry customers brought their bills to Monday's session, and council members seized the chance to take swipes at the company.

"We've been getting ripped off by Century Cable," said Councilman Paul Koretz.

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West Hollywood's 11,000 cable subscribers might not see immediate savings, though. Century has one month to appeal the rollback orders to the Federal Communications Commission, but it is unclear if it will do that, said Maggie Bellville, a company vice president based in Santa Monica.

Bellville said company officials, who did not attend the West Hollywood session, hoped to "come to an understanding" with the cities over cable rates. "I can't tell you what's going to happen," she said.

Century lawyers sought to delay the West Hollywood action, saying the company was given too little time to answer the planned rollback order. But city officials characterized the move as foot-dragging, saying company executives were aware of the city's plans weeks ago.

The rollbacks were calculated using figures supplied by Century and matching them against rate ceilings allowed by the new federal law. A consultant hired by West Hollywood determined that the company was overcharging customers by $3.72 a month for its 42-channel basic cable package, and 40 cents a month on equipment used in many houses.

In Beverly Hills, Century Cable officials had skipped a March 1 public hearing on cable rates, saying company officials were out of the country. The city agreed to postpone its decision until this week to give officials from the company's New Canaan, Conn., headquarters an opportunity to speak.

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However, despite the vocal objections of Century representatives, the council rolled back rates for the city's 9,200 subscribers from $24.08 to $22.40. In addition, subscribers can expect a refund of nearly $15 for the amount overpaid to Century Cable since September in service and equipment fees.

Scott Schneider, Century Cable's senior vice president, said Tuesday that "it is likely that the company will appeal" Beverly Hills' cable rate decision within the next 30 days.

Schneider said the company believes the city has exceeded its jurisdiction in setting the new rates because it counted channels that are not part of the 42-channel basic service package in calculating the per-channel cost.

The city contends, however, that the cable company moved many channels including CNN out of what had previously been a 53-channel basic tier in September and began offering them individually or as part of a new package.

"This would appear to be moving channels to an a la carte status to avoid regulation and to raise the rates," said city spokesman Fred Cunningham, in a report on cable rates.

Beverly Hills filed a complaint with the FCC in December contesting the practice.

Schneider told the council that if a Century appeal is successful, it is uncertain whether the company would try to recoup the $1.68 difference in cable rate fees for the months it loses during the appeal.

"To try to do that would be enormously disruptive to the subscriber base," Schneider said.

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