The man in somber wool looked much the same as the other cable television representatives crowded into the Prince George's County Council hearing room last week: three-piece suit, well chosen tie, prosperous, interested in being more so. Sitting still he carried the air of executive wealth, but as he began the presentation on his company's virtues, the sparkle of his thick gold bracelet and his habit of leaning far forward toward his audience gave him the earnest demeanor of a TV talk show guest.
"The problem with CableCom is that it's too good," intoned the man, who was Lee Lovett, a partner in a high-voltage D.C. communications firm and one of the star performers of last week's session.
"Only CableCom included a plan for rebuilding the system in year 11 of the franchise. Do YOU want to be alone in year 11, when the District and Montgomery and Fairfax have state-of-the-art systems?
"Do you want to be ALONE?" he said.
Surrounded by fancy charts and publicists and the aura of a high-stakes game show, the County Council last week heard from the six companies still vying for at least one of the county's coveted franchises. The most recent step in awarding the county franchises, the work session was preceded by the county cable commission's recommendation of Metrovision for the northern franchise and Viacom for the southern -- two firms relatively unencumbered, in the commission's view, by local "investors" brought into the companies for the influence they can wield.
But after almost eight hours of tedious testimony last week, the companies managed to prove how little actual difference there is between the top-rated proposals in matters that interest the general viewer and how far someone with a keen eye for public relations can go in a field where so much money is asking to be made.
First came Cablecom, a group half-owned by a Denver company called TeleCommunications Inc. (TCI) and half-owned by stockholders who include Charles A. Dukes and Gerald Holcomb, friends of and fund-raisers for County Executive Laurence J. Hogan. They were represented by Lovett, whose arm-twisting presentation was full of appeals to county pride and political fear.
"Because Cablecom refuses to mislead you, we bid this system at an honest interest rate of 21 percent, versus an average of 14 percent among all the others," said Lovett. He added that someone might be able to build a system -- estimated to cost between $21 and $40 million for each half of the county -- at a projected interest rate of 14 percent, but he added, "I wouldn't bank my political future on it."
Cablecom was followed by Prince George's Community Cable, a locally owned group that has consistently complained that no one understands its proposal, which includes a method of leasing channels from other companies. "We regret that the cable commission prefers an orderly monopoly to the benefits of a competitive market," said the PGCC representative in a strongly worded but half-heartedly delivered statement.
Then on to Viacom, a New York and California-based company wholly owned outside Prince George's. Viacom's spokesmen crisply dispatched non-equity local investors (those who receive stock without paying fair market prices) as freeloaders who eventually cause viewers to pay more because the money they should have contributed must be borrowed. Up next was Metrovision zoning lawyer Russ Shipley and company president Henry Harris, who also soothed jangled council nerves with a gentle, "jus' folks" pitch for their company that featured, among other things, a group of local investors who will contribute an amount of money commensurate with the amount of stock they will receive.
The day was rounded off by Storer and Cross Country, who made their presentations in a room by then strewn with empty coffee cups and filled with the odor of council member William Amonett's cigar. Both companies seemed to have abandoned their earlier interest in competing with each other. Storer, represented by former county executive Winfield Kelly, made a broadside attack on northern franchise winner Metrovision, pledging a clearer picture, scholarships for local youths and grants to the county. Cross Country, represented by state Delegate Frank Komenda, made an equally spirited assault on the southern winner, declaring that local investor participation in the company is "non-equity by design, quite frankly. We don't believe that cable is an institution for the rich."
At the end, however, the questions and dilemmas were the same as before: How effective is local investment as a means of ensuring accountability? And how desirable is it when the investors pay less for their shares than they would be worth on the open market? How financially stable are the companies? What quality of service do viewers receive for the prices, which vary from about $2.50 to $12.95 per month for basic services, up to about $16 per month for the most elaborate?
By Nov. 17, the Council must set its priorities -- what tradeoffs among financial solidity, technological advancement, and local accountability it is willing to make. At the end of last week's session, the council seemed no closer to resolving those questions.
"Hell," said council member Floyd Wilson after the session, "I didn't know it was going to be as complicated as all this."