IT WAS unusual, for a Super Bowl game. The one played this past Jan. 30, the ballyhooed Super Bowl XXXIV, was actually exciting.
So there you were, sitting in front of the television as the Tennessee Titans, seven points behind, drove for a touchdown that might have tied them with the Los Angeles Rams, who are playing out of St. Louis. Titans quarterback Steve "Rubberarm" McNair miraculously escaped two tacklers to fire a pass to a receiver deep in Rams territory. Then, with five seconds left, McNair faded back to pass and
Nothing, if you were a customer of TCI cable in Baltimore City. For thousands of TCI patrons, the screen went blank. The city's cable picture was out yet again. For those who had A-B switches -- little buttons that let you access local channels on regular TV -- the game was over by the time they pressed the thingamabob.
If you have to be punished, it would be nice to know what you're being punished for. TCI customers have been punished for some time now. We already expect system outages during a thunderstorm, a hurricane or a strong breeze. Whenever bad weather approaches, we know it's a question of when and for how long, not if, TCI customers will have system outages.
But you can't mess with Super Bowl Sunday and not expect to get nailed. So I called TCI offices in Baltimore and asked to speak to their public relations folks about the more than 30-minute cable outage. The answer did not bode well. The TCI flack is one Jean Davis, whose office is in Washington. As of the deadline for this column, she had not returned calls. I wanted to ask her if TCI would consider giving a free month of cable to all those customers who missed the last moments of Super Bowl XXXIV.
Dee Rose, who called from TCI's Washington office in Jean Davis' stead, called the system outage a case of Murphy's Law -- whatever can go wrong, will -- rearing its head.
"It was bad, bad timing," Rose said. "It didn't go out during the first quarter or the second. It went out in the last few seconds. It wasn't out long, but that doesn't mean much to you if you missed the game."
There are other questions TCI could answer. Why does Comcast -- which serves customers in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties -- offer the Game Show and TVLAND channels as part of its expanded basic package while TCI customers have to pay for digital cable to get the same channels?
Why did Comcast offer channels like Sports Classics and Turner Classic Movies long before TCI did? Why are city dwellers -- who already pay higher taxes, suffer from a higher crime rate and send their kids to poor public schools -- afflicted with the area's worst cable service? How did we get to this state?
Marilyn Harris-Davis, director of the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications, had some of the answers. TCI's contract with the city, awarded in 1984, runs until 2004.
"They had what I call the cable wars," Harris-Davis said of companies such as Times Mirror, Comcast and Cox cable, "bidding to string their cables across the city." The City Council awarded the franchise to Cox Cable, which was bought by United Cable, which was then bought by United Artist Cable, which was eventually bought by TCI.
Before city cable customers start forming a posse to round up City Council members, there's something they must know. Nothing in the agreement says TCI has exclusive franchise rights in the city. A company called Flight Systems is now serving customers in Lexington Terrace. A city having more than one cable company is not unusual. Chicago, Harris-Davis said, has four.
As for what happened Super Bowl Sunday, Harris-Davis said there were two system outages. One occurred just before halftime, the other within the last five minutes of the game. Apparently, ice on top of a power supply cabinet expanded and caused water to drip on the electronic equipment inside.
TCI, to its credit, is trying to make amends. Mike Hewitt, TCI's Baltimore area director, said the company is giving the 2,000 customers affected a day of free cable and two coupons for a free pay-per-view movie.
If there's any lesson to be learned here, it's that football fans who are cable customers should always keep a noncable TV on during the Super Bowl -- just in case.