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Blame officials for cable monopoly

No matter how I fine tune the reception, my television still has a problem with vertical hold: The cost of the picture keeps going up. But most of the sets in St. Petersburg have the same problem. And the people who own those sets know what the problem is: They're hooked up to Paragon Cable.

Paragon can raise its rates any time it wants for the next 14 years. And if its four-year track record stays true to form, Paragon will want to raise them often. The rate for basic cable has increased by a third in a little more than 2 and a half years. The latest increase, $2, starts in December.

In all fairness, to say that Paragon Cable and its monopoly is at fault is not to do justice to the problem. The company is doing what it is supposed to do as a good American corporation. It is providing a service and exacting as much of a price as it can get for that service. Nothing wrong with that _ legally.

We cannot overlook city administrators for the quick, efficient _ but mostly just quick _ manner in which they put Paragon in that position. Little more than a year ago, the council voted to give Paragon 15 more years of free reign. Council member Edward Cole Jr. was the only one to vote against it. The vote to extend the cable franchise came two years before renewal was due.

Why? Was it because Paragon was going to spend a bunch of money to improve its service and wanted to be assured that it would have the franchise long enough to show a profit?

Nope. City administrators wouldn't enter a contract just to make a private corporation feel it's safe to spend some money, although Paragon's general manager Robert Barlow said a shorter-term franchise would have precluded the upgrades in service.

Was it because no other companies would enter the bidding competition when the franchise expired in 1991?

There was no way of knowing. Barlow said the 60 to 70 subscribers per mile in St. Petersburg could not support competing companies, but is a good market for one company.

Was it because Paragon enjoyed such a high rating from its subscribers _ the council's constituents _ that everybody should be guaranteed 15 more years of good service, good profits, and re-election?

Subscribers such as Jacqueline Selitto have complained to anyone who would listen. And some who wouldn't. She said she has called the company about problems with her service and the tone of the response has been: "Well, lady, if you don't like it, have it disconnected." She said city administrators have not returned her calls.

But they have gotten her message and the same message from so many other callers that they are having second thoughts _ probably their first real thoughts _ about the 15 years they gave Paragon.

Profits, presumably, are why the rates keep rising. Barlow said callers who talk to him about rate increases complain about the cost of living, generally, not just about cable rates.

Last week, a familiar sound was coming from council chambers. It comes every couple of months lately. It's some variation of "We've been had" or "We've been duped," or "Ohhhh," accompanied by a palm slap to the forehead.

Once or twice, is cute. More is dangerous. It's an expensive sound.

We've heard it several times with the Dome, constantly hear it with downtown redevelopment, and finally hear it from the sale of the Fotomat building. It's the sound of a city administration falling for anything that sounds new and improved _ then thinking about it months or years later, after they're committed to it.

As for Paragon Cable, Barlow admits he has a good deal in St. Petersburg, but he says the customers also got a good deal.

Many of those customers disagree. But Barlow and Paragon are the wrong enemy. Barlow is making his employees and stockholders happy.

City administrators work for their constituents. Who are they trying to please?

Perhaps cable subscribers need to offer them a crash course on the merits of short-term franchises at re-election time.

Elijah Gosier is a staff writer for the St. Petersburg Times.