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BUSINESS TCI: The Most Hated Company in Dallas

Gable lovers are fed up with poor service, rising rates, and limited choices. TCI says it’s fixing the problems now. Should Dallas buy it?
By Dan Michalski |

STOCKBROKER STEVE GARVIN says he doesn’t hold grudges, but he has hated TCI since 1990, the first and last time the cable company did him wrong. TCI had been Dallas’ cable provider for just a few months when one of the company’s representatives called Garvin at his East Dallas home at 8 a.m. on a Saturday to offer a special Disney Channel promotion. Tired, Garvin told the phone solicitor he’d call back and hung up. A few hours later, there was no picture on his TV. “My cable is out,” he recalls telling a TCI phone operator. “We know. We turned it off,” the voice explained. “You said you were going to call us back and you didn’t. So can we tell you about our Disney special?”

Garvin opted instead to join the cableless society.

Warren Uhlich became a TCI customer this year after moving to Highland Village from Lewisville (serviced by Paragon Cable). Uhlich was upset to discover his new neighborhood didn’t receive certain channels-Sci-Fi Channel, History Channel, Food Channel. He called TCI to inquire about the lineup, and a pleasant customer service rep said she didn’t have an answer, but she could sell him a cable guide. However, the cable guide didn’t list channel numbers for Highland Village. He’s written three letters and made two more phone calls, but has yet to get an answer.

“This didn’t happen with Paragon,” says Uhlich. “They always took care of you right away. I hate TCI. 1 think I’m going to put that on a bumper sticker.”

Perhaps the bumper sticker should say, ’I’m mad too, Warren!” as Uhlich is certainly not alone.

For years, TCI Cablevision of the Metroplex Inc. has been the company cable users have loved to hate. Though there are other cable companies in the region, most Dallas television watchers have no other choice. And for some who have poor reception in their neighborhoods, the monopoly that TCI holds has meant that they must go to it to be able to watch TV at all.

About 20 frustrated people spoke at City Hall in May to protest TCI’s latest request for a rate increase. Angela Plese said she represented thousands of upset customers in the Village apartment community. Improperly wired before TCI’s reign in Dallas began, the Village has never been able to receive the B side. Now, thanks to a recent channel lineup change, subscribers at the Village pay for but cannot receive popular channels such as ESPN 2, Comedy Central, The Learning Channel, and VH-1.

“Because of bad reception in apartments, we can’t get television without cable, so it is a utility, not a luxury,” said Plese, pounding the lectern with her index finger. “TCI wants us to pay more and more while giving us less and less. If this rate increase gets approved, then maybe TCI should consider sending a tube of KY jelly with the next bill. Because that’s the only thing that will make il easier to take.”

Dallas accountant Robert Mitchell talked about TCI’s hidden price increases over the years. “When I first received cable in Dallas, the monthly cable guide was free. Today it’s S 1.50,… The cable box was given oui with no monthly rental charge. Today it is $2.08, and in June it will increase to $3 per month…. And if I am one day late with my $9.88 payment, they charge a fixed $3 fee. This works out to be a 30.36 percent interest rate. A usurious rate! There’s not a business around thai can charge you that, but TCI seems to get away with it.” These small increases, according to Mitchell’s figures, add up to nearly $11 million a year in additional revenue for the company.

Dave Cook, assistant director of the city controller’s office and chair of the meeting at City Hall, asked if anyone wanted to speak in TCI’s defense. No representative of TCI attended the public hearing. No volunteers stepped forward. The audience chuckled.

At the Better Business Bureau, a ratty manila folder stuffed 4 inches thick holds the most recent complaints. It’s labeled “TCI #5” and contains about 80 grievances hied in the pa it three years. (TU Electric’s file, by comparison, contains only 24, despite the fact that the utility has nearly three times is many customers in the region.) The written gripes-accusing TCI of “absoute ineptitude,” “extortionist practices ” and “total disregard”- cover intrusive selling, long overdue refunds, and billing troubles, though most fall under the general category of “unsatisfactory performance.”

For years, TCI has paid lip service to its critics, pledging to clean up its act. Its franchise-the contract giving TCI the right to be Dallas’ exclusive cable provider- expires in 1000, and this September marked the beginning of an FCC-mandated three-year review of the company’s performance. If the city declares its service unsatisfactory, TCI will be booted out of town, forced to leave behind a SI billion investment h infrastructure. Currently scrambling aj:ainst the likes of AT&T and Microsoft for the biggest slice of America’s tri lion-dollar telecommunications pie, that vote of no confidence would cost the company dearly. As cable, phone, and Internet services become intertwined in the near future, only the strongest corporations will get to play this high-stakes game of Hungry Hungry Hippo. It TCI doesn’t succeed in resurrecting its reputation, the Big Cable behemoth’s time in Dallas could be running out.

And no doubt about it. the unwelcome wagons are ready to roll.

When TCI sought Dallas City Council’s approval for the rate hike just a few months prior to the start of the review period, there wasn’t really much the city could do to stop it. The city :; regulatory jurisdiction only extends to the price of basic service and a few other small fees-covering less than half a typical ?able bill. This year, TCI has requested rate increases-some higher than 20 percent-in cities all across the Dallas area, from Garland to Euless to Flower Mound to Piano. Civic battles ensued, but in most cases, TCI won approval win little compromise by simply adding cost to billable items outside the cities’ regulatory realm.

In Dallas, an initial public outcry and groaning in the council chamber was expected, but a personal stand taken by Mayor Ron Kirk definitely was not.

Kirk shocked TCI executives by calling for a boycott, encouraging citizens to disconnect their cable for the summer (and read more instead). “Let’s let them go three months without our money and see if they don’t come back with something more reasonable,” said the mayor.

Though TCI serves 40 other municipalities in the Dallas region. Mayor Kirk’s tongue-lashing was the first time a major civic leader had said what was on many customers’ minds. Since then, TCI has scrambled to counter the damage. It’s banking on a new corporate persona and dangling a few tech no-carrots to win us over-even though its not-so-distant past suggests the cable guys might still be pulling our plugs.



SPIN CITY

IN EARLY JUNE, JUST DAYS AFTER KIRK’S unprecedented public scolding, Leo Hinder)’, the company’s CEO, flew from the Denver corporate headquarters to Dallas to launch a public relations counterattack. It was a Monday, about K:30 a.m., as Hindery sat in the East Dallas office of Dale Bennett, TCI’s regional vice president in charge of the Dallas area. The cable guys were preparing for an early interview with The Dallas Morning News and lunch with Mayor Kirk. They were ready to tout soon-to-be-available technological advancements-digital compression, increased channel capacity, and ultra-high-speed Internet access-as signs of TCI’s new era of total customer satisfaction when…

The cable went out. “We heard a pop-pop-pop, and then the building went dark,” says Bennett, remembering the power surge that kicked off the worst day of his nearly 20 years in the cable business. Several seconds later, the electricity came back on. but the cable and the phones did not. “It was the worst cable failure ever in Dallas, and it couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” Bennett says.

Two backup systems at TCI mission control had simultaneous meltdowns, leaving the entire Dallas area without cable for about 90 minutes. With the phones also tied in to the fried backup generators, customers calling TCI received no answer. Engineers and executives alike scurried about the master control room, pressing buttons and turning dials frantically, getting nowhere. Soon they were ripping up floor panels and stretching jumper cables from service trucks through the windows to manually re-fire up each channel, one at a time.

TCI officials did talk briefly with the mayor some two hours later. Kirk said he appreciated the “courtesy call.” A slightly dejected Hindery told a reporter after the meeting, “I think he’s skeptical.”

Bennett, a 51-year-old CPA, is the man in charge of erasing all the ill sentiment. He returned to Texas in February after turning around troubled cable operations in California, Arizona, and Hawaii. He also served a stint at TCI’s corporate headquarters as vice president of the customer satisfaction team. Bennett is the face of TCI today-an ordinary-looking, all-business sort, with round glasses and a bald crown. He speaks with his hands folded in front of him, like a penitent convict pleading to a parole board. When he talks, his words are the company line:

“When we have been criticized in the past, it is seldom we didn’t deserve it,” he says. “But in the market today, we will live or die based on our customers’ perceptions.”

On the bookshelf in Bennett’s office are a set of Oriental worry balls and a small bottle of Jose Cuervo next to a shot glass. A quarter-full bottle of Excedrin sits atop paperwork on his desk.

“We are in a period of adjustment, and we are learning,” Bennett says, “Of course we have not solved all the problems yet. Unfortunately, there are still times when we make a customer’s life difficult.”

Catherine Russell suffered one of the most common TCI irritations last year. Told to be available between noon and 5 p.m., she took a vacation day to have cable set up in her new apartment. The installer arrived but didn’t have the necessary equipment. They rescheduled for some lime between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. the next day. Having taken more vacation time to wait at home, she called TCI al 4:30 p,m. only to find out they had rescheduled her again for two days later. The customer ser-vice supervisor reportedly said, “You should have called us earlier.”

The stories go on and on. A Dallas customer using an automated billing plan canceled his service in June. TCI continued to withdraw money from his account, despite customer service promises to clear up the mistake. One Dallas woman canceling her service scheduled five times to have her converter box picked up, but no one from the cable company ever showed up. She later received a bill from TCI for a $250 converter replacement fee.

In February, seven days after mailing a late bill, a Garland customer was greeted on a Saturday by a TCI serviceman demanding full payment plus a $16 “collection fee” penciled in on the invoice. She refused to pay; the cable man disconnected her service and left. She called TCI, which verified that her check had indeed been received.

In July, a Hispanic customer was being hounded by TCI’s collection agency, she claimed, because of a billing error on TCI’s part. The agency sent an apology “for any inconvenience” and assured her in a form letter that no action would be taken while the matter was resolved. Bui the Spanish at the bottom of the letter translated to: “If you do not pay the balance as soon as possible, we will take legal action against you, which would affect your credit in the entire United States.”

Since his arrival, Bennett has changed some company procedures to prevent such customer-relations calamities. For one, TCI now offers narrower time frames for installation and service. If the representative is late, you’ll get a free installation or a $20 credit. {You’ll probably have to ask for it, but you will get it.) And if you’re lucky, TCI will call you when a technician is on the way.

“Historically, our business was not a very consumer-friendly business,” Bennett says. “Until recently we were a monopoly utility as much as we were an entertainment provider, because you couldn’t get cable programming anywhere else. And this is how we learned to manage our business. Frankly, we know we have been a little light on the value side of our price-value relationship. We are working hard to convince our customers we do want their business. We’ve made a lot of changes, but frankly, we still have a long way to go. But you just take a look at TCI in six months to a year. You won’t recognize us.”

That’s when, according to Bennett, TCI cable will escort us into the future. Our oh-so-exciting journey will begin with digital compression. This technology will be available in some area neighborhoods by Christmas. By the end of the quarter 1998, the service will be available all across the Dallas area. Done deal, Bennett says. Promise.

But what exactly is digital compression, aside from being TCI’s answer to the growing popularity of direct broadcast satellite? For the consumer it translates to clearer pictures and almost 200 channels^-all three HBOs. dozens of niche networks (yes, there’s an all-game-show channel and a Southern gospel channel), and an overdose of games for the sports junkie. A web browser-like navigator helps you find your way around without flipping channels. This programmable system can block your kids from watching Beavis & Butt-Head and even alert you when a favorite Perry Mason episode is on some obscure network in the middle of the night. Also beginning in 1998, TCI will provide the Dallas area with high-speed Internet access. It’s a topic that gets half a smile out of Bennett and prompts more company PR:

“This is all very exciting. With a cable modem, a one-meg file that takes five minutes to download today over a standard phone line will take 1.5 seconds. We’ve found this technology changes the way people use the Internet-for example, using it instead of the Yellow Pages to find a phone number. With cable you’re always connected, so no dialing up and logging in. Just a click of the spacebar and you’re on the Internet.”

The service|will debut in Garland and in two years, Bennett claims, the entire Dallas area will have the future of telecommunications protruding from its walls. Compliments of cable.

PLAYING MONOPOLY

FOR A COMPANY WITH A HALF MILLION miles of its wonderwire crisscrossing the nation, TCI’s beginnings were quite humble. In the early 1950s, Bob Magness was an Oklahoma cottonseed salesman and part-time cattle rancher whose business often took him through rural Texas, where television reception was notoriously poor. When he saw a small cable system in Paducah, he believed those clearer pictures could be the entrepreneurial opportunity of a lifetime. So he sold the livestock, mortgaged the house, and headed out to brighten the lives of television-starved small towns.

He built his first system in Memphis, Texas, for 700 customers. Magness climbed the poles while his wife, Betsy, ran the office. By 1965, with six cable systems and 12,000 customers, the company relocated to the Denver area, where mountains make TV reception miserable.

TCI officially formed in 1968, when Magness’ company merged with Western Microwave, which provided the technology to carry signals into remote areas. Aggressive system construction and acquisition of other small I cable operations led to rapid growth. By 1975, TCI was America’s second-largest cable operator, with nearly 700,000 customers in 32 states. But in 1980, when Dallas was finally ready for cable, TCI was not even considered for the franchise.

“TCI was growing so fast,” recalls Joe Barta, who represented American Television and Communications in a heated six-company race for the Dallas bid, “but they were always in so much debt because they were constantly leveraging all their assets. They were regarded as cheap because they owed so much dang money everywhere.”

Competition for the Dallas contract was cutthroat. “Everybody wanted it so bad, that exclusive franchise, because we knew it was a monopoly. We all thought we were gonna be billionaires,” remembers Barta. “And so the pissing contest began.” It soon became obvious that the deep-pocketed Warner-Amex would get the contract, despite widespread belief that their bid was loaded with unfulfillable promises.

Sure enough, cable got off to a bad start in Dallas. According to Barta, the problem began with the bidding process. “Everybody was promising the moon, trying to one-up each other,” says Barta. “Hell, we were all lyin’ about what we could deliver. Warner just lied the most.” Once Warner set up shop, Barta-a semi-retired sports reporter, PR man, and political good old boy now in the vending-machine business-would later be appointed to succeed Lee Cullum as chair of Dallas’ new cable board, in part because, as Mayor Jack Evans told him, “You know what everybody’s lying about more than anybody.”

The extent of Warner’s overstatements became clear, establishing a distrustful precedent. They failed to deliver promised interactive technology (at a time when no one really knew what that meant, anyhow). They exaggerated how quickly they could wire the city. They overestimated the number of customers they would have and the amount of cash flow they could generate. They ignored customer service and failed to make good on a promise to put a color TV in every jail cell. “Warner flubbed the dub on just about everything,” says Barta. “It was one fiasco after another.”

Irate citizens flocked to the cable board’s monthly meetings, complaining about terrible service and rate hikes or that they didn’t have cable in their neighborhood yet. Often as many as 100 people would cram into the City Hall conference room to speak to the 14-member advisory committee. “We’d listen, and then the folks from Warner would get up and talk about some new technology that was going to make everything better,” explains Barta. Warner’s Holy Gizmo was a device called the Qube, which was supposed to have Dallas watching 30 more channels and ordering pizza through the TV screen by 1985. Warner would abandon the Qube concept in 1984.

“They would tell us about all these great new things, but they couldn’t tell us why they only had six people answering thousands of phone calls,” Barta recalls. “The whole board thought Warner was putting on one of the biggest snow jobs in the history of snow jobs. And they were. But there wasn’t much that worthless, sorry old cable board of which I was chair could do.”

Dallas’ cable system had turned out to be a lemon. Richard Knight, the ever-practical city manager, and then-Mayor Starke Taylor realized that those involved in the franchise deal had gotten caught up in the excitement of being on the eve of a technological revolution. It was time for everyone involved to save face.

They redrafted the franchise agreement, scaling back (expectations and requirements. Warner, of course would have to go. and the city allowed them to sell their franchise rights to Heritage Cable, a relatively small operation, in 1985. The cable board was dissolved.

Meanwhile. TCI was spreading across America like St. Augustine in the suburbs. By 1982, the company had become the nation’s largest cable operator, serving two million customers and several major markets, including Pittsburgh, Chicago, and St. Louis;. They were absorbing as many other cable companies as possible. Heritage fell in its path in 1990, when TCI bought up the company’s stock and took over the Dallas franchise.

Cable prices were skyrocketing as TCI financed its expansion. A merger with United Artists Entertainment gave the company control of 86 additional systems virtually overnight. TCI also invested in programming entities, buying a 36 percent interest in Turner Broadcasting. Viacom soon became TCI’s biggest corporate adversary, claiming that the company was stepping into anti-trust territory with its hold of 25 percent on the entire cable market. In 1994, TCI bought Viacom. The company then absorbed Liberty Media while buying up rights to the wireless phone market from the FCC. They continued to seek partnerships throughout the ’90s, striking deals with U.S. West, AT&T, and Paramount.

Bennett, who joined the TCI team about the same time the company set up shop in Dallas, was working his way up the corporate ladder during these years, managing cable systems in Texas and California and getting well-versed in TCI’s business philosophy.

“We felt our ability to compete long-term would be determined by size,” he says. “The mentality was to grow as fast as possible.”

But while TCI focused more on growing the company than running it, customer satisfaction was at a low and relationships with cities were souring-especially in Dallas. In 1990, City Hall put up its dukes, ordering TCI to correct customer service problems or face a $200 a day penalty. Dallas was demanding that 95 percent of all customer calls be answered within two minutes, a franchise-mandated standard that TCI was meeting only 20 percent of the time.

In 1991, a negative-option marketing plan for the Encore network (90 percent owned by TCI) was halted by the Texas attorney general, who ordered TCI to give refunds to customers who were billed for the service because they didn’t call to say they didn’t want it. TCI responded by suing the attorney general’s office. That same year, TCI had cable in a meager 28 percent of Dali as households, compared to a 60 percent average nationwide.

Between I9&8 and 1992, Dallas’ basic rate had increased nearly 50 percent, while several basic channels-ESPN, TNT, USA, and AMC, for example-were moved to the (more expensive expanded basic package. Also, in one week in 1992, Dallas’ cable went out during both ’ presidential debates, the first time due to a storm, the second because a bird got mangled in a transformer.

That same year, TCI’s CEO John Malone was promising a revolutionary new technology called digital compression. It would bring 540 channels (including 50 channels of college sports every Saturday) into America’s living rooms. We’d see it first, he said, in 1994, and by the end of 1997, it would be the standard for television.

Also in 1992, the federal Cable Act went into effect, reregulating the industry. Over the next two years, rates dropped in many cities. But Dallas and TCI continued to fight. In 1994, TCI accused Dallas of overstepping its regulatory reach, limiting revenue and thus slowing down improvements in customer service. The point of contention was the overall size of the Dallas cable market, and each side accused the other of counting houses wrong.

Rate battles had become an annual event in Dallas, and 1995 was an especially fiery year. The city hired a consulting firm to assess TCI, who wanted a 28 percent increase. The consultants recommended lowering rates instead and giving a $10 million refund to Dallas customers. Dan Murrell, the VP who preceded Bennett, marched 20 employees into City Hall and said, “These people can’t feed their families if I can’t raise rates.”

Murrell went on to contend that TCI was, in fact, undercharging customers and that he would appeal to the FCC if necessary to get his rate increase. Councilman Larry Duncan gave Murrell a stem look and said, “I don’t respond very well to threats.”

Mayor Pro Tern Max Wells asked, “Are you for higher rates for our citizens, or are you for lower rates and a $ 10 million refund?” Before he could answer, Councilman Paul Fielding offered an opinion: “The cable service has always been lousy, it’s always going to be lousy. It costs too much, and citizens don’t want to pay more.” (Murrell did. however, find one ally in the horseshoe-Councilman Al Lipscomb, who apologized for TCI’s “being bashed like despicable criminals” while referring to TCI as “a good corporate friend of ours.”)

Then, in 1996, the market abruptly changed. Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, which basically let the phone, cable, and computer industries dabble in each other’s business-all in the spirit of encouraging competition, easing price restrictions, and advancing technology. TCI was $14.5 billion in debt at the time and-after dropping Telemundo in the Rio Grande Valley and removing Chicago-based WGN from several systems in the Midwest (and Dallas)-was accused of being out of touch with the customers. Direct broadcast satellite was finally offering a viable alternative to cable, offering more channel s for not much more money. By the third quarter, TCI had lost 70,000 customers and 308,000 pay-per-view orders.

CEO John Malone, whom AI Gore once called “the ringleader” of “the cable cosa nostra,” put spending plans on hold and sold four company jets. It was time to get the financial house in order, which included laying off 2,500 employees. Dismissing 6.5 percent of your work force is never easy, and for TCI, it proved especially difficult. TCI hired a temporary team of envelope stuffers to process the pink slips. The group showed up, and so did their catered lunch, but the termination notices did not. TCI officials took care of the layoffs themselves days later.

TCI was in the midst of some serious self-evaluation when the father of the company, Bob Magness, died in November. Management shifted, if only slightly. Malone took over as chairman, and Leo Hindery assumed the role of president and CEO. Bennett was sent back to Texas, now as a vice president in a regime proclaiming customer service as the top priority. His buzz on Hindery:

“Since Leo arrived, this company’s seen a complete change in direction. Now instead of trying to grow the company, we are growing the market. We are working hard to convince people we do want their business.”

Hindery has traveled around the country, apologizing for TCI’s old monopolistic arrogance while publicizing TCI’s soon-to-be-arriving technological advances and advantages. Wall Street apparently has been buying the pitch. From March to September, TCI stock nearly doubled, jumping from $11 to more man $20.

“Up until a year ago, we believed we had to be a national business to compete with AT&T,” Bennett says. “We wanted to be a one-size-fits-all company, and quite frankly, that was a mistake. We forgot that our strength over satellite and everyone else is on the local level. That’s where our focus is now.”

Bennett realized that capturing Dallas’ support would require more than improved service and ESPNs 3,4, and 5. The cable company would need to show its spirit of cooperation, its noble intent, its soft corporal: soul.

“Quite frankly, we historically haven’t been very good corporate citizens,” he says. “We’ve made a move to put more back into the city, to help with good causes. We live or die based upon the health of this community.”

Locally, TCI gives about $1 million a year to varius charitable ventures, such as Backing the Blue and buying school supplies for floor kids. But more valuable to fund-raising friends is the S5 million worth of free air time that TCI donates.

None of these plans would work, however, if the TCI machine didn’t get its long overdue tune-up. Since arriving at his current post in February, Bennett has trimmed his work force from 1,400 to 1,000 and turned PR arid marketing into full-scale departments. Service technicians now get four weeks of classroom and field training, instead of the two days tagging-along-with-another-guy that used to be good enough. Service-trouble calls have hence dropped by nearly 2,000 a month. Service problems now are supposed to be fixed on the same day. It’s actually been happening sometimes. Installations: within three to seven days, not 10 like it used to be. Service, service, service. Could the monopoly days really be ending?

Bennett says: “We control our own destiny by how good a service provider we are- We still have some problems, sure. Old habits are hard to change. We’re not yet where we want to be, but we’re getting there…. What we ’re doing now is making a front-end investment. We’re not looking at the bottom line next week.”

Of course, Bennett’s mantra means little if TCI’s post-monopolistic philosophies don’t trickle down to the front-line employees, the service technicians and customer service representatives who interact with cable subscribers every day. Inside the customer service center are 100 cubicles, with about 35 phone operators each shift who handle calls constantly but not feverishly. Two routers sit at an elevated desk monitoring call volume and traffic, while one supervisor walks the floor, ready to help the next especially disgruntled customer.

The large room is brightly lit, with a few dozen smiley-face balloons floating above the work stations. A banner, located on a wall that can’t be seen from any customer service cubicle, says: ’TCI-The Customer 1st.” On the ceiling is a green light that Rashes once every two months or so. It’s an internal signal to tell management that a customer is threatening an employee in the payment office downstairs.

A computerized log tracks performance in the customer service center. With Bennett out of town, Mark Morrison, general manager of TCI’s Dallas operation, explains what the numbers mean, showing first that the call center handles more than 120,000 calls a month. A Rolex emblazoned with a TCI crest on his wrist, Morrison points to the numbers from the previous few days, when TCI had 98 percent of its callers holding less than two minutes. His other hand slightly obscures the rest of the page, but not well enough to make those days registering only a 50 or 60 percent unnoticeable. He then folds the paper, saying, “You only really want to see the bottom line for the month, right?”

According to that bottom line, TCI answered 94.44 percent of its calls within two minutes for the month of September. It’s close to, but not quite up to, the city-required standard of 95 percent.

A BETTER RECEPTION?

LATELY, DALLAS CITY OFFICIALS HAVE been unusually quiet about their old adversary, the cable company. Mayor Kirk, who just months ago was one of TCI’s most vocal opponents, suddenly has no comment on cable. (He declined repeated requests for an interview with D Magazine on the matter.) He did, however, thank TCI in a September City Council briefing for sponsoring his summer read-ing program and providing a party with free snow cones and popcorn. And on the same day Kirk closed the downtown arena deal, he took time to meet with Leo Hindery, Dale Bennett, and executives from A.H. Belo to discuss the possibility of a joint-venture local news channel, a sort of North Texas CNN.

Certainly it is in a city’s interest for TCI to be doing well, even if they aren’t doing good. They pay Dallas 5 percent of all revenue from the city as a franchise fee- about $3.5 million, almost twice as much as it costs to run the city’s human resources department. Annually, TCI pays more than $25 million in franchise fees and taxes to the 41 cities in the region under its control. TCI is still blaming the rising cost of programming to justify its battles with city governments for rate increases. But now several towns are saying they won’t buy il anymore-literally.

In rural TCI constituencies across the Midwest, local governments (backed by more than 90 percent voter approval in some cases) are opting to build and operate their own cable systems, which will be run as utilities. Harlan, Iowa, just spent $3.8 million to build a fiber optic network that passes every home and business, and it signed up 1,000 customers in its first year. TCI has tried to convince the mutinous municipalities that such plans only make sense in big cities (like Dallas. maybe?). Bui don’t tell that to the people in Harlan, where TCI has suddenly doubled its channel capacity and dropped rates by almost 40 percent. Harlan will also be one of the first places in Iowa where TCI offers digital compression. Dallas was supposed to begin its three-year review of TCI, as required by the FCC, in September. Bui in October, the man in charge of the evaluation. Dave Cook of the city controller’s office, said “1 think we’re supposed to begin two years before [the franchise expires in September 2000] or something. 1 know we haven’t done anything on it yet.”

Assuming Dallas does eventually con-duet the review, the city will be looking at a TCI that is desperately competing for a prize that is far bigger than Dallas. As the electronic signals beamed into our homes via telephone wires and cable lines become more and more important in our lives, and as these signals become more and more intertwined, every major telecommunications player wants to control them. But TCI knows it will have little chance of ruling the Information Age if it can’t even keep the peace in the Dallas cable kingdom.

While TCI’s kudzu-like expansion has slowed, the politics of partnership persist as the business-and-technology game of Risk continues. One of the company’s most recent deals was a swap of about a million cable subscribers with one of their biggest competitors on the national level-Time Warner, a company Dallas knows all too well from its Warner-Amex days. The result of the joint venture in this area means TCI is taking over systems in Irving, Lewisville, Coppell, and Grapevine.

On the technology side, TCI’s formidable weapon is digital compression, which comes in a box that looks like a slimmed-down VCR with plenty of lights and buttons. The long-awaited cable modem will follow.

And, of course, there is Bennett’s company line: “This is all very exciting for everyone. The future is here.”

The next steps should be especially exciting for Bennett, who got involved in the cable business way before the days of MTV, ESPN, and the Starz! network. A 3-by-2-foot sign behind his desk at TCI’s Dallas headquarters reminds him that “To be accountable means to carry the well-being of an institution entirely in one’s hands.” But which institution is Bennett defending these days? Does he doublespeak for an old, ogre-ish monopoly, struggling to survive, or is he singing the refrain of a people-friendly telecommunications giant, ready to plug us into the 21st century?

At least one thing has already changed for the cable guys at TCI amid all the PR and circumstance: Today they sit on the other side of the screen, hoping for good reception.

But to TCI customers in the Dallas area, the picture is still fuzzy. Our past cable experiences have taught us that a bunch of lines could turn out to be a total snow job.

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