United Artists Cable gets an earful

March 29, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

3/8 TC It wasn't exactly a stinging rebuke that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke delivered to United Artists Cable of Baltimore last night.

At least Coles Ruff, United Artists' general manager, didn't seem at all stung as he grinned and shook hands after the annual meeting of the city's Cable Communications Advisory Commission. What could have turned into a public pillorying over chronic equipment shortages and service fiascoes had turned out to be, at worst, a mild chiding.

"It's an improvement over last year," Mr. Ruff exulted.

Arriving midway through the meeting, the mayor strode to the microphone and declared that "this level of frustration cannot be tolerated any longer." He said "a strong message has got to be sent" to the cable TV company.

But the criticism got no stronger than that. The mayor did vow to give strong consideration to granting a second cable franchise in Baltimore and complained that United Artists isn't living up to its timetable for completing its network, but if he had a big stick to wave at United Artists, he didn't bring it with him.

If Mr. Schmoke had delivered thunderbolts, they probably wouldn't have been well received anyway. The City Hall hearing attracted about 100 people -- more than half of whom were United Artists managers and other employees.

The committee did hear a litany of complaints from the dozen or so customers who did show up to testify, but veterans of these hearings said the vehemence level had subsided from last year.

Don Kelly Sr. came from Northeast Baltimore to complain about channels that aren't offered. "I've been asking United Artists for years to get ESPN2. Comcast has had this a long time," he said, referring to the cable provider across the city line in Baltimore County.

Walter Cherevic came to complain about the channels that are offered, saying that he had to pay a $1.50 a month increase for channels he didn't want. "Why can't I delete six channels at a shot and save $1.50 a month?" he demanded.

Matthew Weinstein of Charles Village denounced United Artists' reported decision to replace the left-leaning Nineties Channel with conservative programming as an attempt by John Malone, president of United Artists' parent Tele-Communications Inc., to suppress competing views.

Throughout it all, Mr. Ruff seemed self-assured. He boasted that the company's subscriber base is growing, the work force is expanding and outages are declining. Since March 1, 95 percent of employee-handled service calls and installations were done on time, he said. And he promised improvements in the future.

"Within 90 days, we expect to offer telephone customer service 24 hours a day," he said. The equipment shortages that led to installation delays and prevented customers from getting multiple converter boxes are over, he declared. And he said the company is surveying its customers to see which channels they would like to see -- although one commission member noted that the popular Sci-Fi Channel was not even listed as an option.

The sharpest challenges to United Artists did not come from customers but from Cedric Crump, the city's cable compliance officer.

He took issue with the company's assurances that it was responding on a next-day basis to complaints of service outages, charging that United Artists was defining an outage as all channels being out, while the federal government defines an outage as one or more channels being out.

As it turned out, the complaints voiced in the public meeting were much less vehement than those expressed in written testimony submitted by United Artists subscribers.

Jeffrey M. Meyers of Violetville excoriated the cable company for raising the fees for its Plus service 9 percent after adding "insipid and worthless" channels.

And Tom Kravitz of Seton Hill addressed a long letter to Mayor Schmoke detailing his frustration with what he called "one of the least consumer-oriented companies in America."

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