Cable television companies interested in winning either of Prince George's County's two lucrative cable franchises will be required to provide systems with a minimum of 40 channels, including some with two-way capability that will allow subscribers to communicate through their television sets with stores, banks, pollsters or others interested in reaching into county homes.
These minimum requirements, as well as financial disclosure forms and "character qualifications" lists that force cable companies and their owners to reveal any illegal activities committed in the past, are included in a draft report prepared by the county's cable franchises.
So far, according to commission executive director Dolores Early, 46 companies or individuals have expressed an interest in one or both of Prince George's two 15-year franchises.
The two franchises divide the county into north and south areas with approximately 100,000 households in each. The franchises are among the largest up for grabs in the nation and are expected to bring in an estimated $15 million annually when fully built.
The county is requiring that the entire system be in operation within five years of the franchise awards, which are expected to be made as early as this spring by the County Council.
That decision is expected to be a particularly complicated affair both because of the complexity of the quickly changing cable industry and because of the extent to which cable companies and their local agents have become embroiled in local politics. In Prince George's, for instance, a former county executive, several state legislators and close friends of the current county executive are among those who have interests in or represent cable companies.
In an attempt to curtail political influences on the final selection process, the County Council last month at the request of County Executive Lawrence Hogan adopted a resolution prohibiting unofficial communication between county officials and cable companies. The resolution also indicated at the final franchise awards would be based on merit and without consideration of the individuals representing the various companies.
The draft report sent out to various groups throughout the country for comment this week includes items that are not requirements but that the county would like to see included in its cable services. Among the items mentioned are hookups for home security systems, sports channels, news, weather and stock teletypes and neighborhood channels.
"We've set out only the absolute minimum [in terms of requirements]," Early said yesterday. "We expect to receive proposals with much more than that" but will let the intensely competitive cable franchise marketplace determine what appears in each application.