When members of the Charles family of Arlington learned that their neighborhood was being wired for cable television they were delighted.
"We were not very big watchers of television," said Sandra Charles, "but when we got cable we moved our TV set back to the living room." Her family of four no longer spends money on movie tickets, said Charles. Their entertainment consists of staying home and watching TV.
Jonathan Miller, who has subscribed to Arlington's 27-channel cable system for the past year, is considerably less enthusiastic, "Cable television is touted as the panacea for people who don't find enough to watch on TV," said Miller, a writer for a Washington trade magazine.
"The reality is that there's too much God and too much basketball," Miller complained.
Nearly two years after the debut of the $7 million system, variously called ARTEC (after the franchise, Arlington Telecommunications Corp.) or Metrocable (after the product), opinion about its success is decidedly mixed.
The company's progress is also closely watched by officials and investors in neighboring jurisdictions. A system similar to ARTEC's is under construction in Alexandria, where the first hookups are expected to occur in October. Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's are soliciting bids for franchises.
Whether ARTEC, the area's first large-scale system, lives up to industry claims for cable as a stay-at-home entertainment and information complex tailor-made for the 1980s is being played out now across the county.
ARTEC claims a sign-up rate of about 30 percent, meaning that about one-third of the homes in neighborhoods wired for cable actually subscribe. But the 13,000 households that now receive cable amount to only 17 percent of the approximately 74,000 homes in the county.
Although franchise officials refused to disclose operating revenues, the system apparently is financially healthy. County figures show that this year ARTEC is expected to pay $151,000 in business taxes on gross revenues of $3.7 million. Those figures are more than double last Year's.
County officials charged with regulating cable television say there have been few complaints about service from customers.
But they also say that ARTEC has yet to deliver on several promises made when the franchise was awarded in 1973. Those included provisions that the company provide a fully equipped studio and teach classes for Arlington residents interested in producing programs.
So far there is no studio and there are no classes. "The law doesn't specify a timetable for these things, which is probably an oversight," said Charles Hammond, Arlington's cable television administrator.
"The way the ordinance has been interpreted, because nobody has requested these things yet it's really a moot point," he continued. "But when someone does want classes, ARTEC will have to come up with more than hollow answers as to why they haven't provided them."
What ARTEC does provide, subscribers say, is exceptionally clear reception of the 13 Washington and Baltimore stations. Currently most of Arlington except Crystal City is wired for cable; completion of the 360-mile system is scheduled for July.
For a $25 installation fee and a monthly charge of $7.95, viewers can tune in New York and Atlanta stations offering round-the-clock old movies and sports, a news ticker, the Christian Broadcasting Network, an hour per day of children's programming and two hours per day of a new black entertainment network plus live coverage of the House of Representatives. Six channels reserved for the schools and county government are not yet in use.
By far the most popular offering, say ARTEC officials, is Home Box Office, which features a dozen movies per month without commercials for an extra $9.95. Selections for May include "The Deer Hunter" and Guyana Cult of the Damned."
For families like the Charleses, Home Box Office has replaced movie-going. "We were disappointed because we spent a lot of money on tickets for movies we didn't really like," said Sandra Charles, who runs an Arlington photography studio with her husband. "Now we just stay home and maybe invite friends over and watch cable."
"The only problem I have is with my 13-year-old daughter, who wants to watch some of the explicit R-rated movies like 'Saturday Night Fever,'" said Charles, who added that ARTEC's many sports offerings are popular with her 10-year-old son and her husband.
The plethora of sports events has been a boon to bars and restaurants, proprietors say. "We really pack 'em in here now," said Johnny Wright, manager of Friday's, a bar near the county courthouse. "People come here from Woodbridge and Silver Spring to watch the [New York] Rangers' games. We had one guy drive down from York, Pa., to watch the Sugar Ray Leonard fight."
But some subscribers say they find the heavy dose of sports and religious programming offensive. ARTEC's promise -- to offer interesting programming for diverse audiences and provide an alternative to network programming loke "The Love Boat" -- remains unfulfilled they say.
"Arlington touts itself as the gold plated cable system," said subscriber Miller, who notes that half the system consists of Washington and Baltimore stations and an incomplete program guide. "The reality is that we get what they give us, and there's really very little to watch if you're not into Rex Humbard or basketball."
"I have no problem with people deriving spiritual succor from religious broadcasting," he continued, "but why does it have to be fundamentalist Baptist? Why is there no programming for Jews or Muslims or Catholics or Episcopalians?"
Miller and others point out that ARTEC offers only one hour per day of children's programming and no foreign language programs despite the county's burgeoning population of Hispanics and Indochinese, who make up about 15 percent of Arlington's population.
"ARTEC," said Miller, "is an immature system which has yet to fulfill its promises."
John D. Evans, the firm's vice president and chief operating officer, rejects such criticism.
"We are meeting our deadlines and providing excellent service to our customers," Evans said during a recent interview in ARTEC's headquarters located on Wilson Boulevard in Clarendon.
"There's a large segment of the population that really likes sports," said Evans, who added that ARTEC is considering adding Spanish language programming as well as increased offerings for children."The Vietnamese," he said, "are not that big a population.I don't know of any way to get programming for Ho Chi Minh City on an economical basis."
Some observers say that ARTEC doesn't have to get programs beamed from Vietnam. Local programs are one alternative, but without classes or a production studio they would be difficult to produce.
ARTEC's chief focus, said Evans, is to finish wiring Arlington and to persuade landlords at Arlington's largest apartment complexes, including the Charles E. Smith properties in Crystal City, to permit installation.
Although more than half of Arlington's population lives in apartments, Evans said 12,000 potential households are ineligible for cable because landlords have not agreed to permit cable installation, in some cases because those properties will be renovated or converted to condominiums. In addition to the 5,000 rental units Smith manages, tenants at the 1,100-unit Colonial Village complex and the 1,800 Arlington Towers project cannot now receive cable.
At the same time ARTEC is seeking to crack the apartment market, it also is asking the County Board to deregulate its rates. The board is scheduled to give that request preliminary consideration at its meeting tonight.
Evans says that ARTEC, which is financed by a General Electric subsidiary and a multimillion dollar loan from the Chemical Bank of New York, should be deregulated because it has not had a rate increase since 1976. yThe price of Home Box Office, however, which is not regulated, rose in January.