Fans set for show instead got snow

Cable outage affects thousands in city

Ncaa Tournament

March 25, 2001|By Alec MacGillis and Timothy B. Wheeler | Alec MacGillis and Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

What should have been two hours of cheering turned into a frantic search for television reception for thousands of Terps fans yesterday as a TCI Communications cable outage knocked out service to parts of the city.

Fans fled affected bars and apartments across downtown after television screens turned to snow shortly before the Maryland-Stanford 4:40 p.m. tip-off, desperately seeking bars spared from the outage.

The Terps' victory provided only limited consolation to those forced to spend half the game driving around town or settling for a wavy picture.

"It's ridiculous. People come out for this. This is what it's all about," said Matthew Day, 29, a "huge" Maryland fan who had come to the Midtown Yacht Club on Centre Street to watch. "If they'd lost, it would be even worse, but them winning doesn't excuse TCI."

Robert Harris, plant manager for TCI, said about 3,000 of its 115,000 customers lost reception downtown and in Ridgely's Delight from about 5:15 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., when an underground cable malfunctioned.

But residents and bar managers reported that they lost reception for the entire Maryland game. A recorded message on TCI's telephone line also said the company was dealing with problems reported in areas including Northwood, Waverly, Roland Park and Hampden.

Harris said cable technicians could find no problems when they checked the outage reported in the northern part of the city. Either the report was erroneous, the company official said, or the outage was brief and may have stemmed from a power outage.

Makini Street, a BGE spokeswoman, said the utility experienced no power outages in the city yesterday and received no reports of problems from TCI.

"It's just very unfortunate," said Coles B. Ruff Jr., TCI's general manager. "We apologize sincerely, but these kind of things happen. They aren't planned."

Some affected bars, dismayed to lose business during one of the year's biggest games, went to great lengths to keep their fans. At Pickles Pub on Washington Boulevard, employees drove a Dodge with a souped-up sound system right into the bar through a garage door to provide audio, while conjuring up a fuzzy picture with antennas.

At the Midtown Yacht Club, fans brought in rabbit ears that, with some fiddling, produced a fuzzy but viewable picture.

Other bars weren't so lucky. "I got nothing. It's killing me," said Craig Gahney, owner of Mick O'Shea's on North Charles Street, whose screens were completely snowy, emptying the bar of all but a dozen loyal customers. "During March Madness, I live and die by my TV. If I don't have TV, I've got nothing."

Barbara Rettaliata at the Camden Pub on West Pratt Street had it even worse. "Let's just say I'm looking at an empty bar because of it," she said. "People come in and I say, `Unless you find someone with satellite, babe, you're out of luck.' This is irritating as all get-out."

Bars around the Inner Harbor, Federal Hill, Canton and Fells Point reported no troubles. Some bars in the affected parts of town got by thanks to satellite dishes.

Bars that rely only on antennas for network reception were blissfully unaware of the outage. "That's too funny," said Dan Berberich, the bartender at Dougherty's Pub on West Chase Street, when told of the problem.

Many hit by the outages said their cable was also out for more than 10 hours on Friday. TCI manager Harris said the Friday outage downtown was caused when a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. crew cut one of the cable company's trunk lines. The outage affected roughly the same area, he said.

Fans and bar owners were particularly incensed about the lack of responsiveness from TCI, saying they got recordings when they called yesterday to complain.

"They're not accessible. They act is if you don't matter," said fan Craig Ross. "They know they can do whatever they want, because they're the only game in town."

Nathan Beveridge, owner of the Midtown Yacht Club, said the latest outage has convinced him he needs to band together with other commercial cable customers to demand better service from TCI.

"It's unbelievable. There's no accountability," he said. "Maybe with a class-action lawsuit, someone will pay attention."

TCI, a subsidiary of AT&T, has had the cable TV franchise in Baltimore city for nearly 10 years, Ruff said. The franchise is due to be taken over in May by Comcast Cablevision, which also provides cable TV in Baltimore County.

Day, at the Midtown Yacht Club, said in the three cities he's lived in before, he's never had cable service this unreliable. "When you go to the local bar to see the local team, you expect to see the game," he said. "Cable is like air. You take it for granted."

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