It probably didn't beat "The Flintstones," "Daffy Duck" or "Bullwinkle" in the ratings, but early-morning Arlington cable television viewers yesterday got a chance to see something unusual when they flipped on their sets: the first televised meeting of any local government in the Washington area.
Two television mini-cameras and a seven-member crew tracked every move of the five Arlington County Board members as they nervously rattled their microphones, blinked and squinted under the glare of overhead klieg lights and occasionally played to the television audience.
More significant than the entertainment value of the board's 8 a.m. debut, was the fact that the telecast came more than two years after the cable tv system began operations and more than eight years after Arlington Telecommunications Co. (ARTEC) was awarded the area's first county-wide franchise. Those delays, critics say, illustrate the difficulties local government officials can expect when they attempt to ensure that cable systems live up to their promises.
In Arlington, county officials had assumed that ARTEC routinely would televise county board meetings on a special government access channel soon after its 27-channel system began operations. But the company's 1973 franchise agreement does not specify who would pay for the broadcasts, how often the meetings should be telecast or who would provide the television equipment and crews.
ARTEC officials, who provided the crew and hook-ups for yesterday morning's show, describe it as a "one-shot deal." They say they have no firm plans to televise future board meetings.
The star of yesterday's show was the board's newly-elected chairman, Republican Stephen H. Detwiler, who appeared at ease as he presided over his first meeting wearing a blue shirt and a navy pin-striped suit. Detwiler, at 37 one of Arlington's youngest chairman, bantered with his predecessor, Walter L. Frankland Jr., whose frequent stinging attacks on Metro and the county school system have earned him the reputation as one of the area's best-known conservatives.
At one point during the proceedings when a board member addressed "Mr. Chairman" and Frankland promptly answered, Detwiler looked squarely into one of the cameras and wryly observed: "You'll always be chairman to many of the people of Arlington." The audience and board members laughed.
No one knows what the folks at home thought or even how many of the 16,000 of Arlington's 74,000 homes which subscribe to cable watched yesterday's meeting which will rival "I Love Lucy" in the number of reruns. The board meeting will be rebroadcast four times, beginning today.
Those who do tune in will be able to see ARTEC officials request -- and receive -- a 60 percent increase in cable hook-ups from $25 to $39.95, effective Feb. 15. Potential subscribers who write ARTEC before that date will be permitted to subscribe at the lower rate.
The board narrowly defeated a request, opposed by the county staff and a handful of residents who attended yesterday's meeting, that ARTEC be permitted to charge an installation fee as high as $75 to an estimated 1,000 potential subscribers who live in areas like the Fairlington Villages condominium complex where utility lines must run underground. A higher installation fee will be permitted only in cases where underground lines must be laid for more than 150 feet.
Last June in a surprise move the county board brushed aside objections that ARTEC officials are unresponsive to complaints about service and requests for programing, voting to deregulate the cable tv rates well before the system is completed. That means that ARTEC officials must notify the county of their intention to raise rates. Those rates become immediately effective following a public hearing unless the county board objects.
ARTEC's chief operation officer John D. Evans yesterday urged the board not to oppose the higher installation fee, which he defended citing higher costs caused by inflation and spiralingh interest rates. "The marketplace is going to be the best regulator of our rates," said Evans, whose presentation wsa interrupted briefly when one of the klieg lights went out.
Board member John W. Milliken, a Democrat who was attending his first meeting, said he would support the increase because of inflation but favored a return to rate regulation until ARTEC had met its franchise commitments.
That suggestion brought a heated response from Frankland who said that the board did not possess the expertise to regulate cable. "I (also) do not want to get into the business of regulating this particular operation or any other private enterprise operation," Frankland said.
Board vice-chairman Dorothy T. Grotos, who in the past has criticized ARTEC's performance, cast the lone vote against the installation rate increase.
After a brief debate the board voted against permitting the higher installation fee for undergrounding, saying it would penalize subscribers in certain areas of the county and that a higher price for undergrounding was not part of the franchise agreement.
As visibly disappointed ARTEC officials left the board room, one board member quipped: "Are we going off the air now?"