The decision on who gets the cable television franchise in the town of Leesburg -- which may be made today -- is beset with political pitfalls for the seven Town Council members who will make it.
"I don't envy the position they're in on bit," said one local attorney. "No matter who these council members vote for, they're going to offend somebody."
As in several other Washington area jurisdictions, firms competing for the lucrative franchise have recruited some local politicians to plead their case.
What further complicates the Leesburg situation is that one of the four competing firms, Storer Broadcast Co., has entered an arrangement with the town's leading and politically powerful newspaper, the Loudoun Times-Mirror. Some observers think that arrangement would give the paper a virtual monopoly to supply local news over the cable TV system.
The system will serve the approximately 10,000 residents of the Loudoun County seat and is expected to take in about $750,000 in revenue a year.
Today the council is scheduled to vote on a staff recommendation that the franchise be awarded to Matrix Enterprises.
The atmosphere surrounding the franchise award is laden with charges and countercharges. Some claim the Times-Mirror is trying to monopolize news in the cable system and that it has used heavy-handed tactics to pressure all four companies.
Recently Storer and the Times-Mirror backed away from their bid proposal giving the paper "exclusive right" to the news "on one or more channels." But town manager John Niccolls, who fears a competing newspaper could be driven out of business if the Time-Mirror deal is accepted, says its to late to change the bid.
The controversy began when the Times-Mirror sent letters to all four companies seeking a news supplying arrangement before the bids were submitted several months ago. Officials at some of those companies say they have "never seen anything like it."
Although the paper's executive vice-president and general manager, Randall E. Brannon, said "it was nothing more than a business deal," other describe the paper's proposal as "a very tough contract they were dictating to all the companies."
"The contract said "You will' put [television] studios in the Loudoun Times-Mirror," said John Lubetkin, vice-president of Matrix. "It said, 'You will' give 20 percent of the stock to the Times-Mirror. There were a whole bunch of things saying, 'You will, you will.'"
"We were trying to cut a deal with all the companies," said Randall. "The other turned us down. Storer didn't."
Under the original Storer bid, the Times-Mirror would have gained exclusive access on one or more of the cable system's news channels. This would have virtually eliminated the possibility of any television exposure for a competing weekly paper, The Monitor, or for a local radio station.
"In the long run," said Bill Still, publisher of The Monitor, "we would be wiped out."
At a recent hearing on the bid proposals, however, Storer officials said they would make other channels available to The Monitor and radio station WAGE. Town Manager Niccolls not only rejects the idea of changing the bid, he argues that the Times-Mirror's competitors still would be effectively denied access to the system.
The television studios would be in the Times-Mirror building and under the paper's control. The monitor would be charged for use of the studio equipment, an arrangement significantly different from those proposed by the other three cable companies.
"The Monitor wouldn't be able to afford to rent the studio," said Niccolls. "So in a practical sense, if you don't deal with the Loudoun Times-Mirror under this arrangement, you're not going to get on this cable."
"I would not trust any agreement that would have me going into the Times-Mirror building to do local news," Still said.
Last week the council's finance committee split three ways on the franchise bids: One vote for Matrix, one for Storer and one for a third company, Mid-Atlantic Network. A fourth competing company is Pinbelt Cablevision.