A group of local investors, headed by Robert Johnson, president of the nation's first black-oriented cable television network, yesterday announced the formation of a company to seek a cable franchise in the District.
Johnson and five partners told a news conference the company, District Cablevision, Inc., is urging prompt City Council action to set up a mechanism for awarding the franchise, which could ultimately be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The company is the first to publicly announce plans to seek the city's cable franchise and the first locally run company to enter the field.
Although the council has yet to act on legislation that would set up cable television franchising procedures and standards, as its first move the company has asked council member Wilhelmina Rolark, whose committee has held hearings on the issue, to act promptly on such a measure.
The group also released a study by Search Research, a District firm, which found 73 percent of those surveyed in the city find cable television attractive and 63 percent of those surveyed said they feel the council should move quickly to enact a District ordinance.
Cable television, while an extraordinarily successful venture in many rural and suburban jurisdictions, is only slowly beginning to make major inroads in urban areas. The cost of constructing the hookups and questions about selling cable television to the inner city poor have slowed the urban development of cable systems.
Johnson said his group was prepared to spend $200,000 to $300,000 to gain the franchise and said it would cost $40 million to $50 million to connect the city's homes.
But Johnson said that the survey indicates broad interest in cable television across most racial and economic categories and said that -- with the high cost of entertainment in the District -- cable television, despite a subscriber fee as high as $20 a month, offers the public entertainment cheaper than a family trip to first-run movie theaters.
In addition to Johnson, the president of Black Entertainment Television, the group includes David Abramson, president of Abramson/Himelfarb Inc., a large Washington advertising agency; Albert R. Hopkins Jr., president of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp.; Joseph Sharlitt, a partner in the law firm Freedman, Levy, Kroll & Simonds; Dr. A. Knighton Stanley, pastor of the Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ; and Herbert Wilkins, president of Syndicated Communications Inc., a firm that provides equity capital for minority broadcasting enterprises.
Noting the city government's cash crunch, Johnson said that District Cablevision was willing to share in the costs of a franchise proceeding and said the company would help seek money from the Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration to fund the complex and costly franchising process.
"If the council would enact an ordinance, there is no reason why an award for the franchise could not be made by next summer," Johnson said. Johnson, former vice president of governmental relations for the National Cable Television Association, runs a cable network which now is distributed in about 500 markets.
District Cablevision is proposing a 54-channel network with the capacity of offering two-way programing, which could allow viewers to press buttons and partcipate in instant polls and potentially select items to purchase from retail stores.
The system also would bring into subscriber homes all Washington and Baltimore-area stations, as well as some signals from Richmond. In addition, the system would offer satellite-fed stations from Atlanta and Chicago and cable networks broadcasting news, sports, public affairs and other specialized programing.