The representatives of eight cable television companies, vying for the franchise to wire the southern half of Prince George's County, were loaded for bear at a public hearing before the county cable TV commission last week.
The 35 cable sellers, armed with stacks of glossy, full-color brochures, sophisticated videotapes and even a $250,000 mobile studio, were poised to answer the questions of no more than a dozen area residents who attended the session.
One man, Charles Wilson of Tantallon, admitted he was "intimidated" by the scene in the gym of Lord Baltimore Junior High School, but he stood bravely to ask exactly how many channels each company was offering.
The salemen pounced. Their answers included a dizzying array of 82 to 164 channels, data/text channels, upstream capability and downstream, headends and megahertz. Wilson sat down and was not heard from for the rest of the hearing.
Still, public participation at last week's hearing was greater than at the first hearing in April on proposals on the northern half of the county, when just one person spoke.
"He said all things being equal, it (the franchise) should go to the (company) with the shortest construction schedule," recalled Dolores Early, executive director of the cable commission. "He was just anxious to get his HBO (Home Box Office)."
Five years after the county passed enabling legislation, cable television remains complex and confusing to most prospective customers and to many of the government officials charged with deciding which companies will get the lucrative franchises for the two halves of Prince George's.
Nevertheless, the county is moving ahead, if somewhat glacially, with the process of choosing franchises, and most residents can expect cable TV hook-up to be available in about 2 1/2 years. Four of Prince George's fiercely independent municipalities already are receiving service from their own cable systems, and 12 more have signed or are about to sign contracts with cable firms.
By August, the cable television commission and Cable Television Information Center, a Washington consulting firm, will recommend to the County Council the firm or firms they believe should receive the contracts to serve homes outside the municipalities that have their own systems. By October, the council is expected to award franchises to serve these approximately 200,000 homes, according to Early.
Within two years of the award the "primary service areas" (the most densely populated two-thirds of the county) will have access to a cornucopia of interference-free programming, according to the cable companies. The remaining third of the county is to receive service within the following year, although some of the more sparsely populated outlying areas would be left out under some of the proposals.
Meanwhile, 16 of the 28 Prince George's municipalities, lured by promises of local control, the latest in available technology and 5 percent of gross revenues, already have plugged in to two of the more politically well-connected firms. Twelve communities in the northern half of the county, containing some 25,000 to 30,000 homes, have signed with former county executive Winfield Kelly's Storer Communications of Maryland. Four communities in the southern half of the county, with 5,000 homes, have either signed or are expected to sign with state Del. Frank Komenda's (D-Oxon Hill) Cross Country Cable of Prince George's County.
Last December Hyattsville became the first community in the county to get cable, with some 1,200 residents actually "turned on," according to Kelly. Homes in Riverdale, Cottage City and Bladenburg also are receiving service and another eight communities are expected to be on line within three months.
Cable in Hyattsville offers 35 channels, of which seven feature specialized programming tailored to, and in some cases produced by, local government agencies, civic groups and individuals. For example, the first semi-monthly Hyattsville City Council meeting was broadcast on Feb. 2. Since then, Mayor Tom Bass has become a celebrity in town; his children even hung a star on the door of his study, according to a friend.
"I found it interesting that people talked to me and said they do watch the council meetings," said Bass. "I do an interview show too," he added.
Hyattsville resident Peggy Ponton, wife of a City Council member, said the local government channel beats even the old movies received via satellite from New York's popular WOR-TV.
A consumer comparison channel that reports the prices of grocery items at local markets already has taught Ponton that one area chain store has better prices than another, she says. The channel, like other "community-access" programming envisioned by the cable companies, is produced in Hyattsville's own studio.
For an additional $8.50 per month over the $10 she pays for the family's two sets, Ponton can sample current movies on Home Box Office, one of the most popular premium "pay channels" offered. "If I don't like it," she says, "I can flick the channel."
The towns signed up with Storer and Cross Country have been promised that if either company gets one of the countywide franchises, which call for more channels and special services, including two-way channels, the municipal systems will be upgraded accordingly. But if Storer and Cross Country do not get county franchises, their municipal systems will remain essentially as they are.
Despite Hyattsville's early success, the county cable commission's Early believes the municipalities may have moved too fast in granting their franchises.
"They didn't take time to study the issue. Before you make a decision that will determine the communication system your residents will have for 15 years . . . that takes study," said Early.
She said Prince George's has tried to learn from the experiences of communities across the country that have been besieged by partnerships between cable firms and influential local investors, the so-called "rent-a-citizens." Allegations of fraud and conflicts of interest have cropped up in almost every major franchise award in the country, including nearby Fairfax County, Early said.
"They (cable companies) all have their reasons. Usually, they say it makes the system more responsive to the community. I disagree with that . . . . Most people in my position do. Most people involved do not have knowledge of how to run a cable system. What you're paying for is for some people to make large profits," Early said.
Komenda and Kelly answer the rent-a-citizen charge by saying they are not figureheads but integral parts of their companies.
Kelly said he put up $12,000 of his own money for his 6 percent share of Storer of Maryland.
"It (rent-a-citizen) won't be the worst thing I have been called," said the dapper ex-politician. "We've put up a lot of money and worked hard for a couple of years, but if we don't get if (a franchise) we lose," Kelly said, He conceded, however, that, if his company gets a franchise "after five to seven years, my 6 percent can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Komenda paid $125 for his 2.5 percent of Cross Country Cable of Prince George's, but said he is earning his equity as fulltime manager of the company.
Komenda and Kelly are the best known of dozens of local persons who are named as owners or directors of the competing firms. Others are Gerrard Holcomb, political intimate and campaign fund-raiser for County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan, former Seat Pleasant mayor Henry T. Arrington, county Democratic Central Committee chairman Gary Alexander, zoning lawyer Russell W. Shipley and former Washington Redskin football star Chris Hanburger.
Because of their early lead in local franchises and their respective influence in the northern and southern halves of the county, Kelly's and Komenda's firm have been touted as the ones to beat for the county franchises. k
Criteria the county will consider include the size, financial stability and track record of an applicant, the nature and degree of local ownership and control over programming, the cost to subscribers and the technical design of the system.