'Seinfeld' fans have another chance Blacked out here for many, final show will be aired again

May 16, 1998|By Sarah Pekkanen and Mark Ribbing | Sarah Pekkanen and Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

It may be small consolation to thousands of Baltimore "Seinfeld" fans who missed Thursday's final episode because of a freak power outage, but in a rare broadcast double-dip, NBC will replay it nationally Wednesday.

Just as the widely hyped special began Thursday night, at least 17,000 homes in the northern half of the city were plunged into darkness.

Perhaps even angrier than viewers huddled around blank television screens were officials at TCI Communications of Baltimore, whose cable transmissions were knocked out to an still-undetermined number of customers -- including many who not been affected by the power outage.

TCI insisted it wasn't master of its own fate, laying the blame for the failure directly at the feet of Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.

"Inevitably, any cable system is going to be dependent on the power operator," said Coles Ruff, TCI-Baltimore's president and general manager.

By coincidence, TCI-Baltimore's annual board meeting was scheduled for the day after "Seinfeld," and the fiasco was a hot topic of conversation. Asked whether TCI was frustrated with BGE, Ruff paused, then said: "Quite."

Angry customers jammed TCI's phone lines Thursday night.

Ruff said TCI has not ruled out the possibility of suing BGE but a lawsuit had not yet been discussed by company officials.

BGE, meanwhile, was offering its own morning-after justifications for the snafu.

"We're very sorry people could not watch 'Seinfeld,' " said Kathleen Nolan, a BGE spokeswoman. "There were a number of exacerbating factors here."

The first culprit was a cable failure between two substations, on Liberty Heights Avenue in Forest Park and on Centre Street downtown, she said. That alone wouldn't have wiped the "Seinfeld" gang off the air, but the relentless rain of the past two weeks had seeped into a separate cable.

Sensing a hazardous situation, the power supply automatically hTC shut itself off.

The ill-timed outage stunned Curt King, an NBC publicity director in Burbank, Calif.

"I'm a big fan of 'Seinfeld,' so I feel so badly for the people not able to enjoy it," said King. He said he hoped Baltimore residents would be soothed by news of the national re-broadcast, which affiliates in Baltimore and most cities are expected to run at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

That means the "Seinfeld"-less crowd must avoid television, newspapers, co-workers and friends for the next week, lest the plot line and gags be revealed before the show's replay.

Terry Trimble, 26, an attorney, wasn't taking any chances: He ducked into a neighborhood bar Thursday night.

"It seems like every summer, three or four times, we lose power," he said. "The people across the street don't. I hate them."

After the blackout started about 6 p.m., TCI's backup power system -- three 12-volt batteries -- kicked in. "They're very similar to car batteries," said Mitch Polun, who oversees TCI's technical operations.

The jolt of reserve energy caused a power surge that knocked out part of the cable service -- including ESPN, the Home Shopping Network, Encore Movie Channel and Classic Sports Network -- for 15 minutes.

After the four channels were up and running again, TCI was able to send out its complete cable signal even though BGE's power was still out. As a result, customers who had battery-powered TVs or backup generators were getting cable TV.

However, TCI's backup system was designed to handle only a two-hour blackout. "Most power outages are repaired within two hours," Polun said.

But this power failure outlasted the backup supply. After a brief flicker of service ended at 8: 45 p.m., power was out in some areas past midnight. Service was restored to the last blacked-out customer at 3: 36 a.m. Friday, Nolan said.

The severity of the outage varied from one part of the city to another; bars were showing "Seinfeld" blocks away from rows of darkened homes.

The crazy-quilt nature of the blackout wreaked havoc on cable lines. In order for a television to get cable reception, electric power must be flowing at all points between the TV and TCI's transmission facility at 2525 Kirk Ave.

If electric power is disrupted at any point along that path, the cable transmission will fail. In other words, a home can have electricity but still be without cable.

In that case, a customer can resort to a low-tech solution: Bring the old rabbit-ears antenna down from the attic.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Pub Date: 5/16/98

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