Tribune-United, a firm that promises to wire all of Montgomery County for cable television and provide as many as 119 TV channels, got crucial recommendations yesterday from the county's cable project manager and a citizens' advisory panel.
Project manager John Hansman recommended that County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist negotiate a franchise contract with Tribune-United, the nation's 11th largest cable television firm. The citizens' advisory committee released a report that also rated Tribune-United first. The two actions give the firm a clear edge as the lengthy franchise award process nears its end.
Each of the eight firms competing for the franchise that could result in $500 million to $750 million in profits over its 15-year span has one week in which to write a final report to Hansman. Gilchrist is expected to make a selection in late August and then the County Council will vote on whether to accept the contract he proposes.
"I rank Tribune-United first among the top group of three substantially equal applications," said Hansman. "Tribune-United offers a superior response both in its complete rural area coverage and in its low-priced entertainment package that enhances the effective availibility of cable to low-income households."
Among the features offered by Tribune-United, a joint venture of the Chicago Tribune and the United Cable Television Corp. of Denver, are so-called home interactive services that would include banking and shopping.
The firm that Hansman said should be second choice, Montgomery Cable Communications Inc./Times Mirror Cable Television (MCCI/TM), finished first in both Hansman's rankings and those of Carl Pilnick, the county's independent cable consultant.
MCCI/TM, which Hansman said should get the franchise if suitable terms cannot be reached with Tribune-United, is a joint venture of a local company, whose board chairman is prominent Montgomery attorney R. Robert Linowes, and Times Mirror, the nation's seventh largest cable TV operator.
Yesterday an MCCI/TM spokesman took issue with Hansman's support of Tribune-United's proposal to wire the entire county, calling it unfeasible and uneconomical to include rural stretches of the county.
"All you have to do is drive out there and imagine stringing cable up out there at $20,000 per mile," said MCCI/TM spokesman Cory DeGeus. "The area we would not serve comprises only 1.6 percent of the population."
Hansman rated Viacom Cablevision Of Maryland third. The firm is an affiliate of the New York-based Viacom International, the country's 10th largest cable operator.
"I feel there are still some questions outstanding and information we feel can affect the final scores," said Jane Lampman of Viacom. "There are some questions regarding the financial viability of Tribune-United's package."
The county's citizens' panel offered the same top three rankings, but also suggested that First County Cable be considered, a firm run in part by Abe Pollin, owner of Washington's professional basketball and hockey teams, because of its employment training plans.
Hansman said Viacom offered the soundest financial and operating plans, and rated Times Mirror highly on community programming. He said Tribune-United offered the lowest subscriber rates.