The city of Hyattsville, unwilling to wait for the creation of a countywide cable TV system, this week decided to license its own cable operation.
In a decision certain to be scrutinized by the county's 27 other municipalities, the Hyattsville city council granted a franchise to Storer Cable Communications of Prince George's County, a subsidiary of Storer Broadcasting Co., represented by former county executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr.
Hyattsville's action dismayed county planners but city officials predicted that other communities would follow suit.
"I guarantee you myself we won't be the only ones to grant a franchise," said Hyattsville Mayor Thomas L. Bass, who had been outspoken in his opposition to waiting for the county to act. "The smaller cities are waiting for us to start the ball rolling."
Since 1976, when county cable TV legislation was adopted, interest in the new technology has spiraled. A county commission was established in 1978 to study the possibility of granting two franchises to cover the 167,000 households in the unincorporated areas of the county. The core of the dabate among municipalities has been whether to wait for the county-wide system or to grant private franchise on their own.
Robert J. Sikorski, executive director of the Prince George's County cable commission, reached after the decision, said he was surprised the city acted so quickly.
"I'm just flabbergasted that a community the size of Hyattsville would just rubber stamp a cable company into existence. I'm just absolutely certain that kind of action isn't in the public interest. There's a big difference between (a cable TV firm's) capability and service," he said.
Flushed with pleasure after landing his first municipal contract, Kelly, who has stumped the county for Storer and appeared before 20 city councils, was enthusiastic.
"We are delighted," he said. His foothold in Hyattsville would be an advantage over competitors, he predicted.
"Every mile (of cable) we build in Hyattsville will bring (other municipalities) that much closer. Municipalities in Prince George's County will realize the advantage for them to quickly take advantage of the system (already in) Prince George's county," he said.
Last month, Hyattsville became the first municipality to pass an ordinance enabling the city to grant a franchise. It gave all bidders until Dec. 31 to propose a system for the community of 15,000. There were two proposals -- from Storer, represented by Kelly, and from the New Jersey-based firm Cross Country, represented in Prince George's by Del Frank J. Komenda (D-27).
Council member Evelyn J. Bata cited Storer's greater "experience and financial strength" as her reason for backing the firm.
Bata heads the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce.
Hyattsville's action, Mayor Bass said, will focus attention on the city's cable TV operation, due to begin in 1981.
"We're going to be looked at. We are first and we are going to have to answer a lot of questions. Prince George's County is big enough to handle more than one system. It's big enough to handle more than three," he said, referring to the possible competition between a county-granted franchise and several municipal franchises. "It's a different picture than what we've been told by the county cable TV commission."
Sikorski said that whatever the municipalities decided to do, the county would grant franchises to provide cable service to the unincorporated areas of the county, which account for nearly 75 percent of the population.
Sikorski said that many municipalities share an "anti-county feeling" that extended to cable television. But, he said, "What you don't realize is that when you award a cable TV franchise you are awarding a utility monopoly and once you make that decision it's very, very difficult to say, 'I think we made a mistake.'"
Sikorski said he hoped the county's remaining municipalities would be skeptical when firms seeking a franchise claimed their technology would be compatible with whatever system the county finally selects. While many companies will have the technical equipment to link with the county system, he said, it is doubtful they will provide that additional service at no additional cost.
Bass said city attorneys have already drawn up a franchise agreement and he expects the document to be signed at the end of the month. Kelly said once an agreement is signed and preliminary engineering studies concluded, construction would begin. Within one year of the start of construction, cable television will be available in some parts of Hyattsville, he said.
Once the Storer system is in place, customers who subscribe will pay $7.50 monthly for access to 32 channels which Storer promises will include all Washington and Baltimore stations. Other channels will all-day children's programs, news and weather, major sports events unavailable on the networks, and gavel-to-gavel coverage of the U.S. House of Representatives. n
For additional monthly fees ranging from $5 to $15, customers can buy three more channels carrying first and second run movies.
The system includes five so-called "public access" channels which will be available to school and community groups and the public at large. Storer promises to provide studio space and cameras, and the time will be administered by a citizen's board.
Under Federal Communications Commission regulations governing cable television, localitites installing cable TV receive 3 percent of the revenue collected by the operator.Bass said the amount would be $10,000 to $13,000 annually, an amount that is "not significant to our budget" but would pay the cost of overseeing the cable operation.