It's the cable company that can do no right.
When thousands of English-speaking customers of Adelphia Communications Corp. were treated to a Spanish audio feed of the top-rated "Desperate Housewives," the problem wasn't out-of-date equipment.
In fact, Adelphia, in the midst of a multi-million dollar upgrade of its regional transmission network, had flipped the switch on a new signal transport system.
Trouble was, the system had been untested and was put in use by necessity when wildfires cut service to 60,000 customers in Los Angeles, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
"(The system) wasn't quite ready for prime time, but we went with it anyway because otherwise thousands of customers would have been without service for hours and even days," said Bob Gold, a regional spokesman for Adelphia, which is still in bankruptcy reorganization proceedings.
Well, they got their service all right in Spanish.
The repeated losses of service and language mix-ups has made Adelphia the butt of jokes from local talk radio and Internet blogs to the editorial pages of the city's daily newspapers. The Los Angeles Times dryly speculated that Adelphia was helping Angelenos practice their Spanish.
Much of the sniping might become moot when Time Warner Cable takes over the Adelphia and Comcast franchises in Los Angeles as part of a $17.7 billion deal. But the unit of Time Warner Inc., which is promising improved service and new features, comes into a market where perceptions about cable operators often run next to dog catcher.
Local officials, too, have been taken to task for not exercising firm enough control over the cable operators that handle the city's 14 cable franchise zones.
Lots of complaints
Those criticisms were echoed by members of the L.A. City Council, who demanded an investigation into Adelphia's loss of service and rebuked the city's cable regulators for the slow pace of negotiating new franchise contracts. Those deals were last negotiated in 1987 and have been repeatedly extended since expiring in 2002.
"People pay a lot of money for cable, they arrange their schedules around certain shows and they deserve good service," said Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who in August became chair of the council committee that oversees the city agency regulating cable franchises. "If you ask anyone on the street what they think about their cable service, people have a lot of complaints and that's citywide, though maybe more with Adelphia."
The City Council in May approved one of the nation's strictest consumer protection standards governing cable service. It allows the city to impose fines if carriers repeatedly fail to meet certain standards, ranging from waiting times on the phone to outages.
Last week, Councilmember Wendy Greuel introduced a motion instructing the city's Information and Technology Agency to determine what authority the city has to force cable companies to compensate subscribers who are deprived of programming and other services.
Adelphia is already crediting the bill of any subscriber affected by the outages, but only if they request it. "We do the best we can whenever a natural or man-made disaster occurs," Gold said. "Dealing with wildfires, apartment fires, people running into telephone poles and other accidents are just some of the myriad hazards in running a cable operation. Everything considered, we're extremely proud of how we performed."
Not everyone is convinced. "Adelphia has always been known here as having the least upgraded system and not the best customer service," said Dean Hansell, president of the citizens' board that monitors the city's Information Technology Agency.
The latest problems began when the Topanga fire destroyed five miles of fiber optic cable in the west San Fernando Valley on Sept. 28.
Maintenance workers were able restore some service in about 50 minutes, but that was too late to placate fans of the popular ABC series "Lost," which was about to air when above-ground cables bringing the network feed from a Ventura hub melted in the fire.
To bypass the fire zone, the new system was switched on, but a glitch in a component that matches a TV network's video feed with a subscriber's choice of audio feed resulted in English-language viewers receiving the Spanish-language version of "Desperate Housewives" and two other shows between Oct. 2 and Oct 4.
Local managers then decided to take the system down to reconfigure settings for the 12 broadcast channels. But the language scramble popped up again on KTLA (Channel 5), a station that workers hadn't gotten to. Syndicated half-hour episodes of "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" were broadcast in Spanish, although Gold said the problem was corrected around 40 minutes after the first complaint.
Adelphia spokeswoman Erica Stull insists that the company's break-up, which still has to be approved by dozens of federal and local regulators in several states, has not affected the $1 billion nationwide modernization program. "We'll continue to improve our system until the day we hand over the keys," Stull said.
Deane Leavenworth, a local spokesman for Time Warner, declined comment on Adelphia's latest problems, saying it would be inappropriate. However, it's understood that one of Time Warner's top priorities after the sale is approved will be troubleshooting Adelphia's operations.
It's a sizeable challenge. Time Warner will go from serving just 365,000 customers in Los Angeles and Orange Counties to around 1.9 million customers in a five-county region that also includes Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. In Los Angeles County, that includes Santa Monica and 95 percent of cable subscribers in the City of Los Angeles.
As part of the deal, Comcast Corp. would also gain control of a share of Adelphia's franchises nationwide, but in Los Angeles would turn over its franchises to Time Warner. That would leave Time Warner servicing nearly the entire city.
"It may not be in the franchise owners' best interests to get a contract right now," said Hansell, noting that Time Warner historically has had better relations with the city than Adelphia. "This situation adds a layer of complexity to an already complex negotiation."
Hahn believes that the city should use the leverage it has now to extract concessions from Time Warner. "We're still in the driver's seat on this," said Hahn. "This is our best opportunity in years to get the best deal possible."
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