It was strangely quiet in the room where Linda Beauregard's 7-year-old grandson had been watching children's videos with a friend. And when she popped her head in to investigate, the scene on the television wasn't anything from Disney.
Beauregard's grandson and his 8-year-old playmate were gaping at the Playboy Channel, which was sending clear pictures and audio into Beauregard's Calvert County home, despite the fact that the Solomons grandmother doesn't subscribe to the cable television channel.
"I was disgusted. I hollered at the boys and turned it off, although it wasn't 100 percent their fault--they were just flicking the stations and didn't totally know what it was," Beauregard said. "It shouldn't have been on the air."
Beauregard's mother, Margaret Langley, also was surprised to discover the "filth on Channel 29," according to an Aug. 2 complaint Langley phoned to the county commissioners' office. The commissioners discussed the complaint at their meeting last week and said it appeared to be a chronic problem.
A handful of Calvert residents have called the county in the past six months to complain that the Playboy Channel signal is not adequately scrambled, said Mary Watson, clerk to the county commissioners.
For subscribers who pay for the Playboy Channel, it airs on Channel 29 from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. During the day, the same channel carries VH-1, the music video channel. A spokeswoman for Comcast Corp., the Philadelphia-based company which owns the cable company that serves Calvert, said nonsubscribers should not be receiving a clear picture or audio of the Playboy Channel.
"The channel is scrambled," said Lori Riordan, a vice president of government relations for Comcast, the nation's third-largest cable company. "There is a series of lines through the screen and occasionally, the picture will freeze for a few seconds. But you cannot view an entire program or hear the audio."
But Beauregard says that even when the picture is partially scrambled, the audio is crystal clear. In her complaint to commissioners, Langley said children in the county are staying up to "tune in" to the adult entertainment signal.
Customers can call Comcast's local cable provider, Jones Communications, and request the installation of a free "trap" on the cable running into their home, Riordan said. That will completely block the unwanted signal, she said.
Riordan said her company has received "a few" complaints about ineffective scrambling and has installed traps in some Calvert homes but could not say how many. She estimated that 20,000 Calvert homes subscribe to cable but could not say what percentage pay for the Playboy Channel.
But Beauregard said her complaint went unheeded and that she was never offered a "trap" when she called Jones a month ago. The Playboy channel still comes through loud and clear, she said. Tuesday, she tuned in and caught a striptease, she said. "There were three full minutes of this woman stripping," she said.
Inadequate scrambling of explicit cable programs is a problem nationwide. Some critics of the Playboy Channel and others like it have said the companies intentionally are sending portions of programs into households as a marketing tool--a charge denied by the companies.
A 1996 federal law required cable companies to completely scramble the signal for an unwanted explicit program once a customer requests it. A federal judge struck down the law on the grounds that its sweep was too broad.
The judge agreed with Playboy that the law violated the First Amendment, in part by limiting adult entertainment channels to nighttime hours even for paying customers. The Clinton administration is trying to revive the law and has asked the Supreme Court to consider the issue, which is expected to happen in the fall.