Los Angeles -- Executives in the former Century Southwest
cable systems in Southern California are acting like kids with big allowances from new
parent Adelphia Communications Corp.
The cluster, with a reputation as a trouble child, is
spiffing up customer service and product selection, instituting operational efficiencies
that will eventually give the franchise one of the most aggressive service plans in the
The cluster now reaches as far north as Ventura, where it
expanded existing operations with the acquisition of neighboring Jones Spacelink
properties. System swaps also gave it AT&T Broadband & Internet Services'
Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based operation, which competes head-to-head with GTE Corp.'s
In Los Angeles County, communities served include Los
Angeles city franchises, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and suburban systems. When Adelphia
closes all of its acquisitions, which also include some swaps with Comcast Corp., it will
be the largest MSO in the region, serving 1.2 million subscribers.
More than size, the biggest challenge for the operator is
reversing public perception of the former Century Communications Corp. properties,
especially in Los Angeles.
Consumers have complained for decades about customer
service, signal quality and inaccessibility. The L.A. city franchises have had a
stranglehold on first place in the city's complaint registry for several years.
Most of the system problems were inherited. Century bought
outdated plant during the breakup of Group W's cable operation. The channel-poor
system used a trapped technology that, in this media-demanding and technical-savvy market,
proved especially prone to piracy. Audits were launched, but recidivism was high.
Also, during the 1980s, vandals who timed their mischief
for maximum consumer ire plagued the system. The system was cut before or during events of
special local interest, such as the Academy Awards or Los Angeles Lakers National
Basketball Association playoff games.
The precision of the cuts, which seemed to do maximum
damage, led executives to believe that the criminal was a disgruntled worker -- there were
union disagreements at that time. But no one was ever caught, and no links to employee
groups were ever established.
When there were problems, consumers told the city,
subscribers couldn't get through to the company. One city official once said an auto
redialer and a speakerphone were necessities when dealing with the company.
But changes are under way, and they are attacking the
cluster's biggest problems: service and piracy.
The plant throughout the cluster has been improved, or will
be upgraded soon, to 850 megahertz, according to Bill Rosendahl, the former Century
executive who is now Adelphia's vice president of operations in Southern California.
That effort should improve picture quality and enable new technologies.
More people, making more money, will be on hand to maintain
the upgraded plant. The contract for the union installers -- the Communications Workers of
America, District 9 -- came up for renewal last year. The new pact raises the pay of some
workers by $5 or $6 per hour, Rosendahl said.
"It's a very good contract," said Cherie
Brokaw, negotiator for the union. "It worked out very well, and our members are very
Adelphia will need happy workers because the burden on them
will certainly increase. To address the special needs of this market, the MSO will offer
live customer service 24 hours per day, which is becoming standard in the industry.
But in the cluster, service and installation calls will
also be accepted around the clock. This goes one step beyond service levels offered by
other operators in the area with reputations for responsive service.
For instance, MediaOne Group Inc. offers 24-hour contact
with live operators and weekend appointments, but not overnight installs or service.
Repair and service calls are assigned four-hour appointment windows.
In practice, four hours has been the standard. But because
of traffic congestion in the area, operators have said half-day windows are the best they
can service consistently.
However, Adelphia is taking that up a notch, set to offer
consumers two-hour windows throughout the cluster in April. "We're almost there
already," Rosendahl said.
The narrow windows are achievable through better
administration of job orders and increased staffing, he said. The company is also more
careful about assigning appointment times that fit into customers' schedules.
"In our region, TV is part of one's work. They
want to see what they want to see when they want to see it," he said.
Improvements should help the cluster to finally improve
penetration, which has stalled at about 60 percent. Actually, viewership is about 70
percent, counting illegals, Rosendahl said.
To attack this drain on revenue, Rosendahl initiated a
bounty program 17 months ago called "React." Employees get a $100 bonus for
every illegal they identify and convert to a paying customer. To ensure that the worker
keeps an eye out for recidivists, the bounty is paid only if the former illegal remains a
paying customer for more than three months.
Since that program was initiated, 20,000 illegal
connections have been severed. Of those, 9,000 converted to paying customers. The bounty
program will now be extended into the acquired systems, too.
"If customers are happy, they'll take other
services," Rosendahl said. The cluster is in the midst of a digital rollout, and it
anticipates a telephony launch in the next year.