On a Thursday night in late February, as couch potatoes across the city settle in for a night of Friends, Seinfeld, ER, and Bullets vs. Lakers, D.C. resident Fritz Mulhauser approaches a microphone at the city’s Office of Cable Television (OCT) and begins spouting off about TV programming.
“Unfortunately, there’s been no action to remedy the long-standing problem created by the company in dropping the Nashville Network (TNN) in 1994,” says Mulhauser, referring to District Cablevision, the troubled franchise that has been running the city’s cable business since 1984.
Mulhauser, who represents the Committee to Return TNN to District Cablevision, is taking up the District’s cable overseers on their offer to hammer away on the cable company at a hearing in its offices. Few others, however, have decided to join him: The rows of chairs in the back of the hearing room are filled with 20-odd observersmostly representatives from District Cablevision or friends and family of OCT staffers.
No matter: Tonight Mulhauser fancies himself a duly elected representative for all local tube-ophiles who subscribe to District Cablevision.
“Lots more people than us are now unhappy with this cable company,” he says in a slow, deliberate voice. “Complaint rates are zoomingthey’re up to a hundred a month. They were just a few dozen a month last year. Six thousand subscribers have dumped the service. So all is not well.”
“This is a company in deep financial trouble,” he says of District Cablevision’s owner, Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) of Denver. “Its stock is in the tank, it’s hungry for cash, and frankly, they’re taking us to the cleaners to bail out their stock price.” Mulhauser meticulously cites recent rate hikes and programming changes to substantiate his attack.
Only six people out of the system’s 90,000 subscribing households bother to speak at all during the hearing, a showing that hardly reflects the wave of criticism District Cablevision has caught in the last eight months. OCT, the municipal entity entrusted with regulating District Cablevision, has fielded a mountain of subscriber gripes over rate hikes, wholesale programming shifts, and a sharp deterioration in basic services like installation and billing. The culture of complaint reflects a system that has promised upgrades and better service for years but consistently delivers neither.
But the complaints and frustration are likely to continue building before they force any change. District Cablevision knows it faces little more than bad PR and a few ankle-biters like Mulhauser for offering lackluster service to its subscribers. The company is virtually guaranteed a new monopoly on cable when its current franchise expires in March 2000giving it 15 more years to stick it to the District’s boob-tubers.
After gaining new subscribers steadily since 1984, District Cablevision hit a snag in 1996, losing residential customers for the first time ever. It entered January 1997 with about 6,000 fewer subscribers than it had plugged in the previous May.
The company gives vague answers to explain the net loss in households but acknowledges that of the 38,000 subscribers who left the system last yearincluding folks who moved away or did not pay their billsas many as 20 percent bailed out over dissatisfaction with price, service, or programming.
TCI’s troubles, meanwhile, haven’t helped matters. While TCI splits District Cablevision’s ownership 75-25 with a local group of investors headed by entertainment mogul Robert Johnson, TCI is responsible for the system’s overall operations and funding. When TCI’s stock took a battering last year, the local franchise felt some of the impact.
“1996 is the toughest year the system has had,” says Frances Turner, general manager for District Cablevision.
Mulhauser says that ’96 was tough on local cable consumers as well.
“First, they hiked up the rates on us,” he says. “There was a 14-percent jump in the rates. The Post told us that…was double the rate increase anywhere else in our area. Got a converter in your house? A 34-percent hike. Service and installation? Up 38 percent.”
The higher rates are fetching poorer service. Customers were recently waiting up to seven daysan entire TV Guide’s worth of entertainmentfor service on picture quality, despite federal rules imposing a maximum 48-hour wait. And since the franchise stopped using contractors in early January, installation orders have taken a full month to produce a guy wearing a tool belt. The wait in other area jurisdictions averages one to two days.
And even when the cable is working, consumers aren’t too excited about what they see. Since last June the company has dumped four channels and replaced them with alternatives of dubious appeal to local viewers. For instance, the cancellation of VH-1, a popular music-video network, fueled so many complaints that District Cablevision found a way to squeeze it back onto its 67-channel system by having it share space with an “adult-theme” pay-per-view channel.
District Cablevision explains that the channel switcheswhich have brought new networks like Animal Planet, the Cartoon Network, and a movie channel called Encore Plexreflect the kind of programming it says subscribers want.
“Our surveys show that our subscribers want more movies and more children’s programming,” says Turner. “These new channels provide that.”
Mulhauser claims the motivation to add channels, however, comes not from the subscriber base, but from marching orders out of Denver.
“TCI owns these programs that they are [using] to replace others,” he says. “They have an ownership interest in the Cartoon Network, in Animal Planet, and in the movie network. And it’s even worse than that. They got paid so much per subscriber$5-8 per subscriberto put these programs on. Now TCI is saying here, and all over the country, that, ‘Well, this is just the programming that folks want.’ That’s what they said when they dumped TNN. Same argument. Same false argument. They did it for money.”
The other people in attendance at the meeting have their own list of gripes against the system. In her turn before the cable brass, Elizabeth Travers bemoans the lack of charismatic Christian broadcasting on the cable systembut thanks the cable reps for having added the Cartoon Network. And subscriber Wylie Thompkins appears before the mike to endorse Mulhauser’s programming tirade; still, he adds a twist of his own.
“They’re running the same movies over and over again. For instance, Channel 21 and 65 show the same movies. You’re taking off the Baltimore stations. You’re taking off the New York stations. Then you put on Mr. Johnson’s Channel 32. It should be rated triple-X. They have some foul movies on that program. The citizens should have a say in what’s being put on TV.”
District Cablevision representatives rebut most of the comments, telling Mulhauser that nobody really wants to watch TNN and telling Thompkins that Johnson’s BET Movies channel most certainly does not contain triple-X programming.
Once the citizens have had their say, Doreen Thompson takes a turn. As OCT director, Thompson would look foolish if she didn’t toss a few grenades at District Cablevision management.
Thompson takes an especially hard chop at the company representatives for having promised a system upgrade that would bring more channelsand fewer complaints.
“You said in 1994, ‘We will upgrade.’ In 1995, ‘We will upgrade.’ In 1996, ‘We will upgrade,’ and nothing happened,” says Thompson.
Thompson sends Turner and the other District Cablevision representatives backpedaling with questions about the loss of subscribers, about the level of local subscriber input on programming changes, about embarrassing cases of bad service, like customers who ask to be disconnected but continue to get bills and threatening nonpayment letters for months afterward.
“We have an internal audit problem with that,” says Turner, trying to explain the reason for the failure to disconnect subscribers, which she describes as a mixup between District Cablevision and its billing contractor. “It’s an issue that we are trying to figure out and determine why we have two different pieces of information here.”
But as Thompson presses on with her questions, the limits of her regulatory domain become painfully clear. Although OCT will decide later this month whether to order refunds on District Cablevision’s 1996 increase in installation rates, the office has no say over programming changes, system upgrades, and even service rates for pay-per-view programming.
Thompson says her office will hold several public forums this year to kick off the refranchising process, a three-year review required by federal law in which District Cablevision’s service record and plans are evaluated. Although District citizens may flood OCT with requests to yank the company’s franchise, FCC rules make it extremely difficult to shut out a company like District Cablevision, which has invested upward of $100 million in building a citywide cable system.
Walter Brown, the last speaker at the hearing, reads a short list of complaints about the company’s billing and service and finishes by asking Thompson if there is a way to end residents’ frustration with District Cablevision.
“Has there ever been any attempt to get [cable] competition in this city?” he asks.
Thompson tells him that the District is wide open to any competitors. The only catch is that they would have to wire the entire city again themselvesa slightly cost-prohibitive hurdle.
Brown, ever hopeful, tries another take: “Is there any likelihood the control board will look into this?”CP