Ventura Keeps Franchise Talks Open


Officials from the city of Ventura, Calif. -- livid over
what they termed "outrageous price-gouging" in their community this year -- have
decided to conduct all of their refranchising negotiations with Century Communications
Corp. in public.

That way, they said, consumers can complain directly to the
cable operator, and Century's responses will be available to all.

The open-meeting strategy has drawn another community
operator, Avenue TV Cable, into the fray, and it added a side chapter -- including a
federal court suit for violation of the First Amendment -- to the drama.

Avenue TV -- a local, family-owned system and the smaller
of the city's two systems, at about 10,500 customers -- has a franchise that expires
three months earlier than that of Century, which runs a 15,000-subscriber system in the

But when the council decided to take the talks public, it
extended Avenue TV's franchise so that its representative would be at the table in
front of angry consumers along with Century's representative.

The open meetings will eliminate operators' ability to
"disseminate misinformation to the public," Ventura Mayor Jim Friedman said.

Council members were furious over rate hikes by Century.
The city ordered basic-rate rollbacks this year, based on reports by consultants that
faulted the operator's computations.

Century complied with the order, eventually rolling back
basic rates twice, from more than $33 per month to $25.07. But at the same time, the
system's tier rates skyrocketed. For instance, a 12-channel tier that includes such
services as American Movie Classics, Cable News Network and Disney Channel soared from
$4.09 per month to $15.29. Century also raised its rates for smaller, six-channel tiers by
more than 300 percent.

Century officials said the tier prices had been
artificially low, and they had to raise them to compensate for higher programming costs.
It was coincidence that prices increased at around the time of the basic-rate rollback,
the company added.

But consumers and the City Council went ballistic.

"It's outrageous. [Century's] a poster child
for price-gouging," Friedman said. "Century is clearly acting as a

Both sides have filed complaints before the Federal
Communications Commission. Century questioned the rate rollback and argued that it is
subject to effective competition. The city asserted that the tier hikes were an end-around
to avoid basic-rate regulation.

The dispute has clearly colored the refranchising talks. So
when the city's consultant, Sue Buske, scheduled focus groups on cable performance
and expectations in the city, Avenue TV announced its intent to televise them.

Suddenly, the open-meeting promoters said "no,"
adding that cameras would stifle public comments, and the council barred them.

Stephen George, Avenue TV's general manager, said the
system videotaped focus groups during the original proceedings 15 years ago.

"Viewers will see the proceeding and how the city
arrives at its conclusions. It will empower those who can't come to the meetings
themselves," George said.

He added that Avenue telecasts regularly scheduled council,
planning-commission and school-board meetings.

Avenue executives then filed suit in U.S. District Court in
Los Angeles, alleging violations of the First Amendment and of the state's
open-meetings law.

At the urging of the judge, Avenue and the city have
negotiated an agreement on coverage. George said Avenue will televise Buske's opening
to the focus groups and audio-record the input of citizens. The program will be scheduled
after the focus groups are completed, which had been set for last Wednesday.

City regulators said they've had "some
talks" with other providers in hopes of attracting an overbuilder, but there is
nothing definite. GTE Corp. has a strong hardwire-video venture just over the hill in
Thousand Oaks, but the general manager there recently said in an interview that the
company's focus in 1999 will be to grow within current franchise boundaries.

Friedman added that the council was concerned about the
possibility of legal action if Ventura attempted to issue a request for proposals. Both
Century and Avenue TV joined in a suit against the city when an RFP was contemplated in

"We'll have to brace ourselves if we go out [with
an RFP]. There's nothing at this point that shows us that these two companies will
change their tactics," Friedman said.