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City 'Desperate' for Cable Contracts After TV Snafu

After 'Housewives' is mistakenly broadcast in Spanish, City Council members tell regulators six years is too long to make a new deal.

October 04, 2005|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

A day after Adelphia Communications Corp. erroneously broadcast "Desperate Housewives" in Spanish to 175,000 Los Angeles cable customers, City Council members rebuked its regulators for the slow pace of negotiating new contracts -- which they said could improve service.

The city's cable regulatory agency was the subject of a highly critical audit in May by Controller Laura Chick, saying that Los Angeles had delayed negotiating new contracts with cable providers since 1999 and missed opportunities to require better service from the companies.

Officials with the city's Information Technology Agency said they began negotiations with cable companies in July but were unsure when they would be finished.

This was met with looks of consternation from some council members on the audit and government efficiency committee, who said they couldn't believe it was taking so long.

"It takes the city multiple years, then it becomes a joke because it doesn't happen," said Councilman Tom LaBonge. "Who is the point person who says, 'Hey ... you can't go home ... until we work this out' ?"

He added that updated cable contracts could bring in more money for the city than the existing 18-year-old agreements.

The debate comes several months after the city approved one of the nation's strictest consumer protection rules covering cable service. The rules allow the city to impose fines and place limits on how long customers can wait on the phone for service. City officials said they receive about 2,000 complaints a year about cable service.

The latest issue to draw customers' ire was the transmission of "Desperate Housewives." Adelphia said that the cause of Sunday night's broadcast in Spanish was traced to an equipment failure that erroneously picked up KABC TV's simulcast of the popular show -- which is supposed to be aired on a secondary audio programming channel -- and fed it into the primary English-language broadcast.

While City Council members were unaware of that problem, officials said it's the ongoing complaints about poor cable service that underscore the need to quickly renegotiate the contracts, which were negotiated in 1987 and expired in 2002.

"We made it clear [to the agency] that we only have leverage [to demand better service] when we have an agreement," said Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who noted that she was told in 2002 that negotiations were about to begin. "I think the city needs to take a stronger position to make those companies accountable."

Greuel also noted that the agency has historically been years behind in auditing the cable companies' performance. But she praised the agency for catching up with the audits, which General Manager Thera Bradshaw said are up-to-date.

Bradshaw also said in a report to Chick that the agency is supporting the efforts of the cable TV franchise renewal negotiating team, which is being led by the chief legislative analyst, the city attorney and a lead negotiator hired by the city.

In the meantime, Adelphia was busy explaining to customers what went wrong with "Desperate Housewives."

The equipment failure was indirectly related to cable equipment damaged Wednesday in the Topanga fire, which caused a temporary outage for an unknown number of Adelphia customers. Adelphia then rerouted its cable signal at an alternate location; a malfunction in that setup caused the problem to occur Sunday night, the company said.

About 20% of Adelphia's Southern California's customers were affected, including 65,000 subscribers in Hemet, Moreno Valley and Redlands, said spokesman Art Maulsby.

The problem continued for the first 50 minutes of the one-hour show -- ABC's No. 1 program nationwide according to Nielsen Media Research -- when the network's Los Angeles affiliate, KABC-TV Channel 7, shut off the Spanish simulcast, according to the station.

Adelphia customer Diane Feldman was at a theater rehearsal when she received a call from her distraught husband as he tried to record the show.

"He called me, and said, 'I'm really sorry, but it's in Spanish,' " said Feldman, 37, a West Los Angeles subscriber. "He was kind of panicky. He's totally addicted to 'Desperate Housewives.' "

This is the second time in a week that Adelphia customers have called to complain about outages affecting KABC programming.

Because of the outage Wednesday night, the station received 1,000 calls from viewers who missed a new episode of "Lost," the network's second most popular program, ranked third nationally. In response, KABC rebroadcast that episode Monday night.

The station received hundreds of calls Monday complaining about the "Desperate Housewives" broadcast. The show is ranked No. 2 overall in national ratings. The episode is to be rebroadcast Saturday night.

"Our phones have been lit up like a Christmas tree," station spokesman William Burton said.

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