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A Mogul Broadcasts His Morals

John Rigas has stuck to his beliefs as head of Adelphia, helping residents in the cable company's rural hometown. But his refusal to carry adult channels in L.A. has sparked controversy.

April 03, 2001|SALLIE HOFMEISTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COUDERSPORT, Pa. — No signs here bear his name, but 76-year-old John Rigas, founder and patriarch of Adelphia Communications Corp., the nation's sixth-largest cable company, rules this hamlet on the New York-Pennsylvania border like a feudal lord.

He offers jobs to all comers and lends money to hard-luck cases who seldom pay him back. He owns more than two dozen local buildings, 10,000 acres of farmland and the movie house across from the village square. The old brick theater features strictly wholesome movies, and Rigas closed the balcony years ago to curtail necking by teenagers.

Now, Rigas is bringing his father-knows-best morality to Southern California. Since entering the Los Angeles cable market in late 1999, Adelphia has purged its systems of sexually oriented channels, alarming First Amendment advocates and bucking an industry trend.

Adelphia, which has about 1.3 million customers in the Los Angeles region, is the only one of the nation's eight large cable companies that lacks adult programming, which is highly profitable and growing fast. Revenues from channels such as Spice, the Hot Network and Playboy are approaching $1 billion, up nearly fourfold since 1998.

Rigas' moral stance is an outgrowth of his small-town upbringing in a region described by some locals as the cultural equivalent of northern Appalachia.

But Rigas also is a throwback to cable's beginnings, a vestige of the pole-climbers who brought television to the hinterlands and whose folksy ways of business seem destined for extinction.

He is one of the last cable pioneers standing after an industry consolidation that saw fellow entrepreneurs such as Denver's John Malone and Los Angeles-based Marc Nathanson sell out, landing some of them on Forbes magazine's billionaire list for the first time.

Eight major operators, led by AT&T and AOL Time Warner, control more than 85% of the nation's cable subscribers.

But Rigas, firmly entrenched as chairman, chief executive and president of Adelphia, vows never to part with his beloved cable systems and is grooming his three middle-aged sons to succeed him.

Slight, stooped and standing barely more than 5 feet tall, Rigas is on a crusade to prove that rural America can compete in a fast-paced media world dominated by global giants.

At lunch at the Crittenden Hotel, one of several local eateries where Rigas has installed telephones because cell phones don't work in these rural parts, the soft-spoken entrepreneur says he's carrying the torch for cable pioneers who long shunned adult programming as an unnecessary evil.

"I'm on a mission as long as I can be to make sure cable will succeed and to realize the hopes of the cable pioneers who were my mentors," Rigas said.

And so, soon after acquiring Century Communications Corp. in 1999, Rigas pulled the plug on Spice, the only adult entertainment service on that company's system.

In addition, last fall Adelphia dropped five local public-access programs, including "Colin and His Sleazy Friends" and one by Dr. Susan Block that had aired on Century for eight years featuring bare-breasted women and genitalia shots.

"This old-fashioned moralist from small-town Pennsylvania is trying to dictate programming to open-minded Angelenos and is flouting the rules of public access," said Block, a Yale-educated sexologist. Block said Adelphia has agreed to run her program, audio intact, now that she is blacking out the visuals with a message to viewers to complain to Adelphia.

First Amendment defenders say cable companies can refuse to carry adult entertainment programming like Spice, but can bar only obscene and commercial material from public access channels they are required by law to provide.

"What Adelphia is doing is illegal," said Peter Eliasberg, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California who reviewed Block's tapes. "Just because something has sexual content doesn't mean it's obscene." Eliasberg said the ACLU is researching the case.

Sticking With Tradition

Rigas winces when asked about Spice. Last fall, the company explained the move as a "business decision." But during an interview months later, Rigas said he's just not comfortable airing programming that conflicts with his moral code. He said the decision is part of a cable tradition.

"The early pioneers made a conscious decision that we didn't need that product," he said. "In the last five years, as cable has embraced more adult programming, we've never spent time thinking about reversing our decision. . . . It's not going to make a difference in our survival."

Rigas said he was taken aback by the national attention when Adelphia dropped Spice in L.A.

"We've done that for years in other places, and it was no big deal," he said. "We've had letters from all over the country thanking us for taking that kind of stand."

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