Cambridge to Pick Cable Franchise

Winds Up Expensive Two Year Bidding Process

Selecting the first-year cable television franchise for a city the size of Cambridge has been no simple or inexpensive task.

Just ask the three cable companies currently vying for Cambridge's lucrative television market and a 15-year contract. According to one estimate, each franchise spent between $300,000 and $500,000 in the cable application process. One firm, American Cablevision Corporation, budgeted more than $100,000 for video presentations and three marketing surveys throughout the City alone as part of the competitive franchise one-upsmanship. Cambridge's cable contract could be worth as much as $32 million, says Cambridge Cable Commissioner Joseph G. Sakey.

Ask the City's specially-created Office of Cable Television--which operates on an annual budget of $139,000 and employees a staff of three--for a glance at the 300-page report of state mandated rules which guided the cable franchises through the bidding process. Or request a peak at the transcripts of more than eleven hours of public hearings conducted in January.

Ask City Manager Robert W. Healy, the City's top municipal administrator, who must pour over thousands of pages of promises by the cable franchises and must weigh the merits of each company before awarding a preliminary license next month.

Ask any of these people and you'll find it hasn't been easy since Cambridge voters gave the City permission to bid for a cable franchise in a 1982 referendum.


Boston's Problems

Cambridge waited more than 10 years before opening bidding for its cable license last February--in part to conduct a more thorough and informed selection process, Sakey said.

The City has been watching the three year old love-hate relationship between Boston and Cablevision Systems Corporation, one cable company which, observers say, promised more than it could deliver.

According to Sakey, Cambridge demanded that the three cable applicants include provisions for public access to local cable stations, wiring the public school system, a realistic timetable for construction of the system, and an effective mechanism for dealing with consumer complaints.

While most cities concentrate on the number of viewing options provided by a bidder--such as Home Box Office and the Playboy Channel, the Cambridge cable television competition has been dominated by the issue of public access to the eventual cable franchise.

"Because Cambridge is such an intellectual, ethnic and diverse community, its citizens want to make their own programs rather than subscribe to canned or packaged shows," says Susan Peck of the Cambridge Cablevision Corporation (3C).

The other two contenders are American Cablesystems Corporation, the nation's 29th largest cable firm which operates out of Beverly, Mass., and Cambridge Consumer-Owned Telecommunications, Inc. (Cable Plus), a cooperative company founded by Cantabrigians.

People's Choice

Although the final decision rests with the city manager, Cambridge residents prefer one company or show no interest in the process at all.

Most residents polled at the City's two cable hearings in January chose Cable Plus over the other competitors, mostly because of flexibility in programming and services of a local cable firm owned by subscribers.