After years of delay, the machinery that could bring cable television to Prince George's County within the next 18 months has been set in motion -- but not without a great deal of friction.
The movement was sparked by former Prince George's County Executive Winfield Kelly, who launched a sales blitz this summer to persuade local municipalities to buy their own cable systems. Kelly's campaign has pitted leaders to the county and several major municipalities against each other to determine who will bring cable TV to the area first.
At stake are thousands of dollars in revenue and plans for a county-wide cable TV network. Legislation adopted in 1976 authorized the division of Prince George's into at least two franchise areas and allows the county and municipalities to split the 3 percent share of gross revenue that cable can offer under Federal Communications Commission rules. The legislation also created a county cable TV commission.
Now, with several towns apparently on the verge of granting separate franchises, the system may be fragmented into four areas and perhaps more, thus destroying the Upper Marlboro dream of a county-wide cable system.
"I don't see what the county has to offer," said Hyattsville Mayor Thomas Bass."I haven't seen anything that they do quicker, cheaper or better than the municipalities."
College Park Mayor St. Clair Reeves said, "Everytime we go in on something with the county, we get the short end of the stick. Experience has shown us time and time again that the county sets the rules the way it wants them. For example, if they change their mind later on about sharing the revenue with the municipalities, all the County Council has to do is change the cable ordinance."
College Park and Hyattsville expect to pass legislation soon that will empower officials to grant franchises to one of the cable firms as early as January.
New Carrollton and Bladensburg adminstrators say then lean towards establishing their own systems, but have set no deadlines for making a decision. Bowie and Greenbelt have named study committees.
As the dissension mounts, Robert Sikorski, new director of the Prince George's cable commission, is seeking to rally county officials and rein in the stampeding municipalities.
"I think the municipalities would be making a big mistake by going out on their own," said Sikorski. "Not only would they be getting a lower, more inconsistent level of service, but they don't have the time that's needed for oversight. They would tie up their hands administratively, trying to run around and monitor these big cable companies."
Kelly, who has appeared before the governing bodies of more than 15 of Prince George's 28 municipalities in his sales campaign for Storer Broadcasting, disagrees.
"Our firm would offer the municipalities the same level of service they offer the county," he said.
The great debate over cable television has focused on these questions or quality of service and whether the municipalities can handle the administrative burden that will come with a cable franchise.
New Carrollton Mayor Jordan Harding says that the long delay in bringing cable to the area has helped heighten the controversy.
"The problem with the county is that it almost always comes in with too little too late," said Harding. "If they had done their job when they were supposed to, they wouldn't be having so much trouble now."
Sikorski maintains that the county is well on its way to bringing in cable TV. He said the commission will hold public hearings over the next six weeks, will report to the County Council in February, and will begin advertising for franchise applicants in the spring.
Following such a schedule, he believes that a franchise could be awarded and construction could begin late next year. Parts of the cable system could then become operational in the spring of 1981.
"I'm going to try and meet with the municipal leaders over the next few weeks and try to persuade them that they should take a serious look at the county's proposal," said Sikorski. "We'd like to be a resource for them, let them use our expertise in this area. Nobody's interests are served if anybody jumps the gun."
Sikorski said he fears some municipalities may make decisions before they have all the facts, adding, "You don't stop and buy the first used car from the first dealer you see. You have to shop around."
He added that while county officials would "like to have the municipalities included in the county-wide system . . . we already have a solid household base around which we could build a very good system." Population figures show that about 75 percent of Prince George's residents live under county jurisdiction outside the municipalities, Sikorski said.
A wide variety of programming is offered by most cable companies. One firm, for example, has already offered the Prince George's municipalities a package that would provide subscribers with between 20 and 35 channels at a basic rate of $7.50 per month. Special channels for the viewing of recently released movies, called Show Time and Home Box Office, could be purchased for an additional $8.50 each per month.
In a promotional booklet, the company advertises a minimum of 13 channels, which would include channels for live coverage of the House of Representatives sessions, live events from Madison Square Garden, children's entertainment, religious stations and independent superstations like Ted Turner's Atlanta-based Channel 17, which beams its signal around the country and is included in the lineup of most cable companies.
A minimum of four channels would provide programming for local government, schools and religious groups. Other channels would provide such services as consumer news, state and regional news, radar and weather forecasts, stock market ticker and time.
Sikorski believes that the cable firms have attempted to persuade municipalities like College Park, Hyattsville and Bladensburg to sign their own franchise agreements as a way to get a foot in the door. When the county is ready to grant a franchise in the future, firms with operations underway in the towns will be able to argue that it would be easier for the county to connect to and build around those systems.
Cable company representatives like Kelly argue however that they would simply like to bring in cable as soon as possible.
"Quite obviously, it's more profitable to serve the largest number of subscribers," said Kelly, "but we can still make a profit in an area like Bladensburg, which has only a thousand households."
Under either plan, the local government, whether it is the county or a large municipality, stands to add to its tax base. If 35 percent of the estimated 224,000 households in Prince George's County subscribe at approximately $7 per month -- the formula the county uses to predict revenues -- the county could earn as much as $200,000 per year. Subtracting the approximately $50,000 it takes to run the cable commission office yearly, the county and the municipalities would split the rest.
The municipalities are far more interested in taking the 3 percent earned from cable television for themselves.
"We'd get a few thousand dollars a month for sitting on our hands," said College Park Mayor Reeves.
Bladensburg town administrator Robert Hacken, however, argues that money is not the reason the municipalities want their own systems.
"There's a feeling in some circles that this is going to be a real god-send for the municipalities, a real moneymaker. Personally, I think that's a lot of baloney. What's a few thousand dollars out of a million-dollar budget?"
Hacken says he believes the citizens would get better programming with a locally administered system.
College Park Mayor Reeves hopes his town will be the first to acquire its own cable system.
"I don't think there is any question a municipal system is better and that we're going to get our own system," he said."The county is scared as hell we are going to get one first. There is no, N-O, sentiment on our council to join a county-wide system."
"They know that if we get one, Riverdale, University Park, Mt. Rainer and Hyattsville will soon follow," Reeves added.
"The question is: Why in the world would we want to go with the county? With our own system, we get all the revenue, we have our own public access channels, and we have more control. With the county you share the revenue, you share the public channel, and you have no control," he said.
Reeves, outgoing president of the Prince George's County Municipal Association, said that at the next meeting of the association he plans to urge his colleagues not to link up with a county cable system.
"By pushing cable television in the municipalities, Kelly . . . has certainly awakened a sleeping giant (the county)," said Bladensburg administrator Hacken. "The county may not have shifted into high or second yet, but they are finally at least in first on this issue. One way or the other, I'm sure cable isn't too far down the line for us."