S.F. PPV Offer Turns Heads

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Bills to AT&T Broadband & Internet Servicescustomers in San Francisco this month arrived with an offer of $16 in free movies, andsome local politicians are peeved about it.

It's not that the contenders for the mayor's office thinkcustomers shouldn't be rewarded for their patience for a long-delayed system upgrade. It'sjust that the bounty has been announced on letterhead from the office of the incumbent,Willie Brown, and the bills are arriving in the days immediately prior to a heated mayoralprimary.

The other candidates - including supervisor Tom Ammiano andformer Mayor Frank Jordan - said the mailing smacks of cronyism and is lacking in ethics.The announcement is tantamount to a free election mailer for the incumbent, they charged.

But AT&T Broadband said the timing of the billstufferwas not influenced by the election, nor by any thought of currying favor from Brown.

In fact, the cable company would rather not send thestuffer at all, as it represents a $2.8 million concession the operator had to make tocomplete the transfer of the Tele-Communications Inc. cable properties to AT&T Corp.

The operator had committed to upgrade the system, whichserves 177,000 customers throughout the city. However, it may take up to four more yearsbefore the system can be made state-of-the-art.

To compensate the consumers for the wait, the city demandedduring franchise negotiations that AT&T Broadband provide consumers with four freepay-per-view movies and stipulated that the offer be made before the end of the calendaryear.

Andrew Johnson, spokesman for AT&T Broadband's WestCoast operations, said November and December bills are reserved for annual mailingsmandated by the Federal Communications Commission.

The new franchise wasn't concluded until August becauseInternet competitors tried to convince legislators to force open the operator'scable-modem platform as a condition of the franchise transfer, and those hearings delayedan agreement. So logistically, October was the only month for the communiqué.

As for Brown's participation, Johnson noted that it hasbeen traditional in San Francisco for communications about rebates, refunds orpublic-affairs programs distributed in cable bills to be issued under the mayoralletterhead.

This practice goes back to the days of Viacom Cable, whichannually included an HIV-services directory in bills with the mayor's signature. Indeed,Jordan, one of Brown's critics, signed some of the previous mailers.

"It's election season. This is an attempt to take purehappenstance and turn it into something else," Johnson said.