The battle over who will win the Washington area's second large cable TV franchise is being fought in Alexandria over the seemingly irrelevant question of who knows whom.
Two companies have squared off in a battle over the franchise in which prominent names are being dropped as rapidly as the snow flakes in last month's storm as the bidders seek to convince the city council of their local roots.
A third company is bidding for the franchise, but its officials complain that the other firms corralled all the local politicans before they entered the contest. "There weren't any (people) left when the others got through," said Bernie Corbett, president of Alexcom, the third firm.
"I think it's going to be nasty, unfortunately," said Charles H. Smith Jr., a Republican city committee member who is chairman of the competing Alexandria Cablevision (ACC).
"It will be decided 100 percent on merit," agreed Bruce E. Lovett, an executive of Altec, the other major bidder, "... And 100 percent on politics."
Indeed, the list of political names involved reads like an Alexandria "Who's Who." ACC, for example, has a list of 41 stockholders that includes former councilmam James W. Carroll: former congressman Stanford E. Parris, a Republican; James M. Thomson, the former Democratic leader of the State House of Delegates, and Frederick W. Ford, chairman of the Federad Communications Commission under President Eisenhower.
Altec's list is shorter, but just as potent: planning commission member N. Vernon Cockrell and architect William F. Vosbeck Jr. are both Republicans. Former councilman Timothy J. Swett, ex-Treasury Secretary Henry H Fowler and former state Sen. Armistead L. Boothe are the Democratic shareholders. Retired Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is also among the 21 stockholders, although as a McLean resident, some might consider him an outsider in the contest
With such shows of strength, the implications are more than subtle. This, after all is an election year in Alexandria.
"I wish we could have done this before we were up for reelection," lamented councilman Donald C. Casey, who is running in the city's Democratic primary Tuesday. "Now I have to watch my contributions. If one of these guys sent me $500, I'd have to send it back."
Republican council member Robert L. Calboun, who faces opposition in the May 1 election, has an equally gloomy view of the contest. Because ACC and Altec have strongly bipartisan stockbroker lists -- "the only thing the Republicans and Democrats have agreed on in years," he said -- Calhoun contended that no matter which way he votes on the franchise, he's going to make potential supporters unhappy.
At stake is a costly investment that calls for the laying of 200 miles of main cable from utility poles. The cable would bring between 40 and 75 channels ot about 23,000 customers who would each pay between$9 and $18 a month.
Programming would range from first-run movies and live sports events to shows produced by local school schoolchildren.
Arlington recently became the first large suburban jurisdiction to award a cable TV franchise and Alexandria's action, now scheduled for May, will make it the second. Except for a few smaller communities like Reston, most of the Washington area remains without cable service despite earlier industry predictions that the area would see widespread cable TV operations by the 1970s.
So far, most of the Alexandria lobbying has centered on personal contact. While the official sales pitches are polite, one council member said, "Some of the individual investors are less charitable" about their opponents.
Altec and Alexcom each have access to TV studios, and have invited council members to see their systems.
A key issue has become who is more local, and therefore, more community oriented. ACC, noted it plans to finance its $4.5 million proposal through an Alexandria investment firm -- headed by stockholder and former councilman Harry S. Flemming. Its principals stress that Altec is seeking the bulk of its $6.3 million projected investment through an outside corporate giant, General Electric Co.
"What we're talking about really is a contest between local Alexandria residents and General Electric," said ACC board member Ford.
"Fred is for the birds," snapped Altec's Bruce Lovett. cIt's just a coincidence that Fred happens to live in Alexandria. After all, he's involved in cable franchising all over the place."
That, too, has become an issue. Ford is a parther in the prestigious Washington communications law firm of Pittman, Lovett, Ford & Hennessey, which has been involved in numerous cable franchise bids around the country.
In 1976 in Baltimore he was, a winner, but the deal nearly faltered afterwards for lack of financing. A 1973 bidding fight in Rockville ended in bitter controversy with no award, after degenerating into a series of terse exchanges.
Ford -- ironically was a founder -- and eventually the chairman -- of the Arlington franchise that began opearations last summer. That group, Artec, from which Ford resigned nearly two years ago, now owns 49 percent of the stock in Altec, his major competition in Alexandria.
Neither Ford nor Altec officials have kind words for one another. "I just had a disagreement with them and I took off," said Ford, who claims he was "begged" to stay.
Ford conceded that the success he and several colleagues enjoyed in winning franchises has earned him enemies in the intensely competitive but highly lucrative cable field. "When you're losing, you become desperate and say things you wouldn't normally say," he said of his critics.
The critics responded by pointing an accusing finger at the law firm and its relationships with the franchises it has represented. "What you will find is that they extract very large legal fees out of those companies," said one opponent.
Ford admitted the franchise business has been good. In Baltimore, for example, his law firm's bills were $218,000, according to a 1977 prospectus filed with the state of Maryland. At Altec, they added up to nearly $170,000, officials there said.
In Alexandria, the fee subject is a tender one. "I don't think that's relevant," said ACC chairman Smith when asked about the legal bills his company has received.
Still, as the decision approaches, it is the argument over who is more local -- and which financial package is not -- that seems to be getting louder but not clearer.
"The capacity for nastiness is large," said Stephen Sharp, a former FCC lawyer who is picking his way through 1,600 pages of bid information as a member of the city's Consumer Affairs Commission.
Ultimately, the council's decision will be based on the analysis it gets from Sharp and from a professional outsider the city is recruiting. "There's no easy way to go about this," said Mayor Frank E. Mann, who insists that politics will play no role in the decision. But if it does, Mann said, there is a final option. "This city does not have to grant a cable franchise."