Cable television is perhaps one of the most mysterious of all businesses along the Wasatch Front. It's an industry that also takes more than its share of public criticism. The new kid on the block as far as Utah utilities go (age 23), there seem to be more questions than answers in the minds of the public about cable TV . . . so, here's "everything you always wanted to know" about it:

NOTE: Tele-Communications, Inc, (alias "TCI") the world's largest cable system (11 million subscribers) and also by far Utah's predominant cable company (90 percent of the market), was used as the source for these questions. Answers could vary from company to company.Q: How many channels are currently on cable TV? What's the maximum number of stations on a cable system?

A: In Salt Lake City, TCI currently has 35 channels. This includes nine airwave channels (KSL, KUTV, etc.), 22 basic cable channels and four premium channels.

The limit on TCI systems is currently 35 channels. While there is no real limit on coaxial cable, the limit is caused by the electronics (amplifiers). Fiber optics cable will be installed in Utah in the near future, and it will allow an unlimited number of channels.

TCI offers about the national average number of channels, but 24 percent of all U.S. cable companies offer 54 or more channels.

Q: What are the most popular cable TV channels in Utah?

A: TCI lists ESPN and CNN. Other popular stations include The Discovery Channel, Disney, USA, the Weather Channel and Arts and Entertainment.

Q: What are the current cable TV prices?

A: Basic cable costs $17.80 a month ($213.60 a year) and expanded basis adds $1.45 a month more. For that extra $1.45, viewers receive TNT, AMC, ESPN, PSN and USA.

The monthly individual premium service prices are: HBO, $12.70; Disney, $10.95; Showtime, $12.20; The Movie Channel, $12.20; and Cinexmax, $12.20. There are discounts for multiple premium channel subscribers, so a person who had every channel offered by TCI would pay $58.15 a month or $697.80 annually.

Q: Why are cable TV rates always increasing?

A: TCI said that its prices are in line with, or even slightly below, national averages. Programming, it says, represents one-third of its operating cost and notes that cable companies recently started paying 400 percent more for satellite programming from the stations themselves (WGN, TNT, CNN, etc.). In fact, TCI offers the American Movie Classic Channel (AMC) at a cost of only 25 cents a month, as of the basic cable package. In other cable markets, AMC itself is a premium service and costs $5.95 a month on its own.

TCI has also broken down its pricing into tiers - basic cable and expanded service - so that customers can have the option of paying for what they want. It started charging converter box users, so that they pay for the extra equipment themselves, instead of spreading the cost to all customers. Inflation also increases costs.

Q: How did the public respond to the cable TV price increase in February?

A: TCI reports having had fewer complaints, either in writing or by phone, than with any previous rate increase.

Q: How much does TCI charge for new customers to hook up? How much do service calls cost?

A: The connection charge is $27.95, plus $31.95 for each outlet connected, including the first outlet. Unlike several years ago when TCI used independent contractors for customer hookups, TCI now provides the service itself to ensure better quality. Service calls cost a minimum of $19.95, but there is no charge if the problem relates to a fault in the company's own equipment.

Q: Can you prepay your cable bill for a year ahead and receive a discount?

A: TCI will allow this arrangement, which obviously saves them time and money in monthly billings. As a reward, TCI will give prepaid annual customers a bonus month of cable free.

Q: If your area doesn't have cable yet, what can you do to get it put in?.

A: Call TCI. It may conduct a survey to see if enough of the neighborhood wants it. TCI estimates that it needs at least 50-60 homes per linear mile to make installation economical. Without that density, TCI may require an initial contribution from customers. It costs TCI $20,000 per mile to put an underground line in. Obtaining the proper easement and insurance costs add up.

Q: Utah has a 47.0 percent cable penetration rate, one of the nation's lowest (nationwide the average is 60 percent). Why is this figure so low?

A: TCI indicated that it is aware of this lag and has been doing many things to increase it, such as improved customer service and better promotion. TCI has been growing by six percent a year, gaining about 10,000 new customers every 365 days.

Utah may lag behind the nation in cable penetration for several other reasons, among them the controversy over risque programming on cable and Utah's lower per capita income.

Q: Which is better - underground cable installment or cable TV on telephone poles?

A: TCI prefers underground cable installation because of cosmetic advantages, even though it is twice as costly and more vulnerable to damage than aerial wires. TCI admits that underground lines can be a hassle because some people hate to see their roadways and their parkways dug up and some won't allow the cable company access to their back yards. Aerial lines are also much easier to repair.

Q: When your cable TV goes off the air, what should you do?

A: TCI requests you contact them by telephone immediately! Contrary to popular belief, the cable company knows when there is an outage, whether local or system-wide, only when customers report it. TCI in Utah does not have what it calls a "return trunk" in its cable lines.

TCI now has a staff to answer the phone 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It said all calls on outages will be responded to within 24 to 36 hours. If this is not the case, make a complaint to your local cable company office manager or general manager.

The cable company suggests that all homes have access to rabbit ears or an antenna. An "A/B switchbox" can allow cable customers to move at the flick of a switch from cable TV to regular airwave television. This costs $6.95 from a store like Radio Shack or $30 if installed by TCI.

Q: What causes cable outages? Is there a way for customers to determine if the problem is only at their house, on the street, or the entire system?

A: Outages can be caused by three main problems: 1. A cut in a cable line. 2. An amplifier that goes down. 3. Electric power loss. A phone call to TCI will reveal whether or not the outage is affecting a large number of customers. Electric power outages will cause a cable TV loss since few TV sets rely on batteries, but the cable system itself can operate on battery backup power for about two hours.

Customers should check the connections behind their own TV sets first and if nothing is loose or disconnected, then contact the cable company. Amplifier problems can cause localized outages that might affect an area as small as a street or neighborhood. If a cable customer can still receive signals for the lower channels, then it's probably a converter box problem. (TCI can test converter boxes for problems at one of its offices.)

If TCI has to purposely shut down its system for a repair, it usually does this at about 5 a.m., a time when most customers aren't watching TV.

TCI stresses that weather should havevirtually no effect on cable picture quality. If it's windy or stormy and your picture goes bad, contact the cable company since this situation is not normal.

Q: Is reliability against cable outages improving?

A: Yes, and TCI said that it is in the process of converting to a new technology, fiber optics, that will greatly improve reliability of cable TV by preventing many outages.

Fiber optics lines will reduce the need for amplifiers, thus doing away with a lot of electronics that are susceptible to malfunctions.

Q: Can you deduct days lost from cable TV outages from your bill?

A: TCI said customers should call and indicate how many days of service they lost. Their bills will be adjusted accordingly.

Q: Why does TCI receive and broadcast the eastern satellite feed on Showtime, since this puts some "R" rated programs on as early as 8:30 p.m.? Isn't Utah better suited for the Pacific satellite?

A: All of the TCI cable systems use the eastern feed of Showtime for consistency. TCI's monthly cable guide, published in Denver, relies on all TCI systems using the same satellite feeds to ensure accuracy in its programming times. TCI representatives said that in a recent viewer survey, 96 percent of all subscribers said that they prefer the eastern feed.

TCI stressed that converter boxes can be equipped with a lock-out device ($15), if parents are worried about children having access to R-rated movies in their absence.

Q: There are regular inaccuracies in the cable TV logs published in the newspaper each Sunday because different cable companies receive and broadcast different satellite feeds, thus airing the same program anywhere from 2-3 three hours apart. Why can't there be a gentleman's agreement between cable companies in Utah to get "standard" satellite feeds and avoid this confusion, especially prevalent for readers in Utah County?

A: TCI said pursuing such an agreement is against anti-trust laws.

Q: Why do some stations, like KSL, have lines through the picture, when no other stations do at the time? Why does WGN have picture problems, too?

A: Some cable connections at the back of a TV or VCR can become loose or simply go bad, thus allowing some outside broadcast transmissions to leak in and interfere with a good picture. This can cause either a ghost image on a cable channel or black bar down the screen. Tighten the connection or replace the connector wire.

Some other stations, such as Ch. 19 (WGN) are particularly subject to interference problems.

Q: My cable TV picture isn't as clear as a friend's is across town. Why?

A: Cable TV picture quality gets worse the further away from the source. Hence, a customer at the dead end of cable system will have a slightly worse picture than one near the source. Fiber optics will solve many of those differences.

Several times a year, the sun lines up with satellite dishes and causes temporary sunspot problems on some stations by creating a snowy picture.

Q: How long is a reasonable wait when contacting the cable company? How long is a reasonable wait for a cable repair or for a serviceman to visit a house?

A: TCI said it now answers all incoming phone calls at least by the fourth ring. The average time for a phone customer to be on hold is 26 seconds. TCI will usually correct outages the same day it is notified, and individual customers receive next- day service.

Q: Who can you complain to, if there's a real delay, or satisfaction problem on your cable?

A: TCI said that its pays franchise taxes to individual cities and is also regulated by these cities. Customers can complain to a customer service rep (CSR) first and if not satisfied, they can go up the line - to the office manager, general manager, state manager and even the division manager. With its increased manpower and computers, TCI can handle all reasonable complaints quickly, it says.


(Additional story)

A bit of the history

Cable TV started in 1948 as a way to provide TV signals for towns or areas having natural obstructions that made regular TV antenna pickups difficult. Ed Parson of Astoria, Ore., experimented with cable TV by stringing transmission wire from housetop to housetop to provide clear TV signals to every house in his hilly area. Two years later, Bob Tarlton of Lansford, Penn., strung coaxial cable on public utility poles to start the first true cable system.

The early systems started up with only a capacity of five channels. By 1972 that had increased to 20 channels. In 1975, HBO gambled on satellite transmissions and ushered in the era of pay-cable programs.

The forerunner of TCI started in 1956 by Bob Magness of Memphis, Texas. The company has a strong Utah connection since Magness combined his talents and resources with George Hatch and Blaine Glassmann of Utah to provide TV to some small Montana communities. TCI was formed in 1968.

Salt Lake City received its first cable franchise in 1968. By 1973, TCI had 8,000 customers and 154 miles of cable. By 1983, that had grown to 20,000 subscribers and by 1984, it was 62,000 customers and 2,700 miles of cable. In 1988, the company broke its system into five separate operations, divided by area.

Today, TCI serves 93 franchises or communities and has 165,000 homes as subscribers. The service passes by a total of 365,000 homes in its 4,770 miles of cable. TCI employees 300 people and paid $1.3 million in franchise fees to local government in 1989. - Lynn Arave.