The Prince George's County Cable Television Commission yesterday recommended that two firms based primarily outside Prince George's be awarded the county's coveted cable franchises, in the process passing over firms headed by some of the county's most influential political figures.
The commission recommended that the franchises go to Viacom Cablevision of Maryland, an Atlanta-based company, and to MetroVision of Prince George's County, a Newhouse Broadcasting Co. subsidiary represented by well-known zoning attorney Russ Shipley.
Firms headed by former county executive Winfield Kelly, powerful Democratic State Del. Frank Komenda, and Gerard Holcomb, a friend and political ally of County Executive Lawrence Hogan, failed to win the commission's backing. Kelly was present at the announcement of the decision, but slipped away quickly without comment.
Yesterday's recommendation does not, however, guarantee that either company will receive one of the lucrative franchises, which some estimates say could generate as much as $70 million in annual gross income after 10 years of operation. The county will receive 5 percent of the annual gross income of each franchise.
The franchises will be awarded by the County Council, which in March reduced the commission's authority over the franchise award, and then easily overrode Hogan's veto of the legislation in April. At least one of the losers in yesterday's decision, Cablecom of Maryland, has already pledged to carry its campaign for a franchise to the council.
This spring's fight reflected the worst fears of some county observers who assumed the cable franchises would automatically become a tug-of-war between the all-Democratic council, the county executive and the commission. Others feared council control would mean that a cable franchise would go to the company able to attract the support of the best-connected county residents. Critics pointed to applicants such as the Storer Co., whose local affiliate is headed by Kelly, and whose stockholders include former county cable commission executive John McAllister.
About 15 municipalities have already awarded their own franchises. Twelve of those franchises have gone to Storer and three to another company, called Cross Country Cable.
The cable commission made yesterday's decision on the basis of five factors, which commission chairman Ronald A. Russo said "we decided on before we even issued the proposals." He said the most important factors were the designs of the proposed cable systems and the financial strengths of the companies involved. In terms of those two factors in particular, Russo added, MetroVision and Viacom were "clearly superior."
The commission, whose members include both public representatives and experts in areas connected with cable, recommended that MetroVision serve the northern portion of the county and Viacom the southern.
Both companies offered similar proposals. MetroVision promises ultimately to provide 112 television channels, an optional home security system, and two-way capability for home users, at a basic rate of $2.45 per month for 21 channels. MetroVision also promises extensive free access to many government and school users and guarantees the rates for three years.
Viacom promises to provide 108 channels and a similar security system and an institutional access program at a basic rate of $6.95 for 62 channels, also guaranteed for three years.
Council Chairman Parris N. Glendening said the council would act promptly on the recommendation, promising a decision by the end of November. Until then, he said, he would have no comment on the proposal.
"I have no reaction, as I think should be the case for all council members," Glendening said yesterday. County Executive Hogan was similarly reticent. "His position is that the commission has done its work, now it's up to the council to consider the proposal on its merits, and he's sure the council will do so," said Hogan spokesman Robert W. Hunter. "Basically, he stayed out of it and will continue to do so."