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Parents All Worked Up About Erotic Cable TV Programming : Thousand Oaks: Some residents worry that kids may be viewing soft-core Spice channel despite scrambling.

July 07, 1994|MARY F. POLS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A squiggle down the middle of her television screen does not disguise the scenes of sex well enough for Thousand Oaks mother of two Tracy Dillon.

Nor does the picture's peculiar casts of magenta and green, especially since sexually explicit noises ring from her television as clearly as the voices of Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street.

Dillon is one of a dozen residents to file complaints with the city of Thousand Oaks over the Spice Channel, a soft-core pornography offering available to nearly 32,000 Conejo Valley homes through Ventura County Cablevision.

At a meeting tonight, members of the Citizens Advisory Cable TV Issues Committee will discuss whether the city should send the cable company a formal complaint for insufficiently scrambling the signals of the pay-per-view channel.

Although the company has offered to install traps for free to completely block the signal, some residents said that is not good enough.

"Kids can always just go to someone else's house and watch it," said Dillon, who had a trap put on her TV. "That's what made me join in on the complaint. What really concerns me is, from what I understand, a good number of junior high kids know about it. That's scary. Twelve-year-old boys definitely don't need to think that is how things are."

The Spice Channel costs $7.95 for 24 hours of service. Unlike the Playboy Channel, which features titillating game shows and sitcoms as well as adult movies, Spice shows erotic movies almost exclusively.

Caroline Milton, the city's media services coordinator, said she sent a letter to VCC on June 22, asking them to address concerns of residents that Channel 53 is not scrambled enough to prevent viewers from getting peeks at the sex shows.

"We normally do not give them a time limit to respond," Milton said. "But in this case I would have expected to receive a written response by now."

VCC President David LaRue said he has not sent a written response because his company is still working to improve its scrambling of the Spice signal.

"We think we have succeeded, but I don't want to give them a written response until I'm sure," LaRue said.

The city has little actual control over what VCC does about the Spice Channel's unwelcome presence, said Tracy Westen, the city's legal consultant on cable matters.

LaRue said he hopes to allay residents' concerns at tonight's meeting. He said VCC has increased the level of scrambling on the Spice Channel in the last three weeks, and has knocked out more of the picture and in some cases, eliminated the audio.

"It looks a little like a herringbone suit now," LaRue said. "With this level of scrambling, I can't imagine anyone complaining."

He said he was not sure what percentage of VCC customers could still hear the audio, which differs in volume and clarity on each TV.

Newbury Park resident Jeanne Anderson, who complained about Spice to the city, turned on her television Wednesday to check the results of the increased scrambling.

"Well, the visual is scrambled but the words are clear as a bell," she said. "I don't think they've eliminated enough of the problem."

In June, Anderson discovered that her 12- and 16-year-old sons had been watching the channel for several months.

"So I went in and turned it on, and there were two women making love in magenta," Anderson said. "Who knows how many hours of porn my kids have watched?"

LaRue said he thought it unlikely that any sexually explicit images could actually have been seen since Spice became available in January.

"It's a little like an abstract painting," he said. "It's hard to tell people what they are or aren't seeing. It's simply a perception. But if they were looking for a certain kind of activity on the Spice Channel, I can't prove they didn't see it."

Residents have complained to Milton and other city officials, including Councilwoman Jamie Zukowski and Mayor Alex Fiore, that the scrambling on Spice seemed less effective than on other channels such as Home Box Office and Showtime.

"They felt that perhaps this was an advertisement," Zukowski said. "Why do they have complete scrambling in some cases and only reduced in others?"

Not so, LaRue said.

"When we initially put it on we had it scrambled at the same levels as other channels like HBO," he said.

Early this spring, customers of Oxnard-based Jones Intercable had similar complaints about receiving unwanted audio from the Spice Channel. Dennis Scala, city liaison with Jones Intercable, said the company has promised to install better scrambling devices this month to eliminate the problem.

In Thousand Oaks, VCC will have to show customers like Anderson that her cable service will not include any part of the Spice Channel.

"If this doesn't disappear within a few weeks, then I'm canceling," she said. "This shouldn't be coming into the house just because I want to get the Learning Channel."

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