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Adelphia Gets Static on Digital Cable

TV: Subscribers complain HBO, Showtime were moved to more costly plan. Firm says system adds security, channels.

April 14, 2001|SALLIE HOFMEISTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jerry Weiss is furious at his cable company for ruining one of his treasured Sunday night rituals: watching "The Sopranos" on Home Box Office.

The Hollywood Hills window decorator is one of more than 140,000 local customers of Adelphia Communications Corp. that have lost a handful of analog channels, including HBO and Showtime, as a result of the cable company's march into the brave new world of digital television.

After months of warning by mail and on the tube, Adelphia on March 27 pulled a total of eight signals off of three cable systems that serve West Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and the hillside communities from the Hollywood Hills east to Eagle Rock. To continue to receive the channels, Adelphia is requiring customers to buy a new digital package that is costing some of them more money.

"It's a big mess," said Weiss, who has missed two episodes of his favorite TV show, spent hours on hold with Adelphia and waited two weeks for a replacement digital box because the first one didn't work.

His saga and those of tens of thousands of Southland cable customers highlight the formidable challenge that cable operators face in selling new high-tech services that have cost them billions of dollars. Services such as digital cable and high-speed Internet access are the cable industry's best hope for warding off satellite competition, but they are neither fail-safe nor customer-friendly.

Adelphia says the change is necessary to give customers more channels and to rein in widespread theft, which costs the cable industry an estimated $6.5 billion a year. Adelphia is paying the price for a $5.2-billion purchase in late 1999 of Century Communications Corp., whose systems in the region remained antiquated even as neighboring cable operators offered advanced services. Century's record as the worst cable operator in Los Angeles is haunting Adelphia today.

Adelphia estimates that as many as 40,000 L.A. subscribers were getting HBO and Showtime free without knowing it because of the vintage of Century's cable systems. The company insists that digital customers should see their rates drop unless they are hooking up multiple sets to digital. But it acknowledges that subscribers previously getting HBO and Showtime free could be surprised.

"The problem is, some people thought HBO was part of the basic cable package," said Bill Rosendahl, Adelphia's senior vice president of operations in Southern California, where 1.2 million customers from Ojai to Temecula make it the region's largest operator. "But it's not, and now they no longer will be getting it for free."

Adelphia said customers who had been paying for premium channels will find digital a bargain. In Eagle Rock, the old rate for the basic cable package plus Showtime and HBO was $69.86 a month. The digital package costs $60.03 a month and provides an additional 28 movie channels, 45 music channels, nine pay-per-view movie choices and 20 basic channels.

"Any customer who says their bill has not gone down, I would love to chat with them because there is something wrong with that story," said Lee Perron, Adelphia's vice president of corporate affairs in Southern California.

His phone may start ringing off the hook. Weiss and other customers who claim to have been paying for HBO all along say their monthly bills are rising to $65 from $45.

Most cable operators gently nudge their customers into buying digital boxes by offering new or niche networks such as Toon Disney or Noggin for an additional $10 a month. Adelphia's bare-knuckle attempt to convert customers to digital by using some of the hottest properties on cable as bait has put it under an industry spotlight.

Some subscribers charge blackmail. "I'm furious that I am forced to pay extra to get HBO," said Larry Richards, a 48-year-old Silver Lake resident. "I was perfectly happy with my old service. Clearly, Adelphia, a monopoly, recognized that the current popularity of "Sopranos" and other HBO shows is another opportunity to overcharge."

After steady improvement on Century's record its first year in Los Angeles, Adelphia's complaint rate spiked after the launch of digital in October, according to city officials. In the fourth quarter, the most recent data available, the three Adelphia systems undergoing the transition to digital had more complaints apiece than any system in the city except for AT&T Broadband's mid-city system, which had a total of 259, nearly three times the volume of any other single operation.

AT&T officials say the system, which serves neighborhoods such as Hancock Park, Mar Vista and Hollywood, had technical problems transmitting signals to a new generation of digital box, although city regulators say most of the problems have been cleared up.

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