Cable TV Firm Draws the Line on Adult Fare

COUDERSPORT, Pa.—Some cable television providers have a reputation for making money by offering “adult” content to customers.

Adelphia Cable doesn't want to be one of them.

Based in rural north central Pennsylvania, Adelphia has 5.1 million customers, making it the sixth largest cable company in the country. What it doesn't have is “adult” channels on its network.

John Rigas, Adelphia founder and director, said he decided almost 47 years ago to provide programming that would be both suitable for families and a strengthening force in society.

He and his brother, Gus, established one of the nation's first cable TV systems in Coudersport, naming it with the Greek word for brother.

Adelphia spokesman Paul Heimel told the Register that Rigas' sense of social responsibility means that the company won't allow “adult” content. “He doesn't want to increase the company's financial standing by sacrificing the company's principles,” he said.

Not all its programming would be considered family fare, however; the company does offer channels carrying R-rated movies. But Heimel said that the company is sacrificing money “in the millions” because “adult” programming provides “potentially some of the most lucrative pay services available at cable companies.”

Heimel recalled that when Adelphia recently acquired some existing cable companies, Rigas told him that those with “adult” channels “should brace for the fact that we are going to be removing them. That is going to cause quite an uproar.”

That policy wins applause from Brian Gail, a one-time advertising executive who helped launch the nation's biggest cable television concern, HBO. Gail was fired from his ad firm after a run-in with HBO officials over their programming. He now heads Gail Force, a communications consulting firm in Philadelphia.

Gail said he admires Adelphia for its responsible attitudes toward programming decisions that in other companies “have a harmful effect on children and on family-building and community-building.”

Time Warner Inc., parent of HBO, said it tries to find a balance in dealing with issues that concern parents. One solution is pay-per-view, said Michael Luftman, vice president of corporate communications at Time Warner Cable. “This a situation where the customer knows exactly what he or she is purchasing—and we presume that they are informed enough to be able to make that choice appropriately.”

He contended that the only difference between his company and Adelphia “is that Adelphia does not sell these pay-per-view channels.”

Brian Gail disagreed. “There is a major decisive distinction,” he said, “between a company that is trying to build community and provide family entertainment like Adelphia, and Time Warner, who is trying to satisfy shareholders by putting whatever they can on the air under whatever label they have to.”

Parents do have a responsibility to oversee their children's viewing choices, said Gail, and maybe even to buy electronic blocking devices, like those offered by Time Warner. But cable companies “have a responsibility to put programs on the air that don't require it,” he said.

Adelphia's Heimel said that, as a carrier, a company cannot control 100% of its programming. He added that Adelphia also tries to show parents how to use their cable service. “We sponsor what is called the critical viewing workshops,” Heimel noted. “We bring groups in and we try to help the parents to choose wisely among the programming.”

In his 1999 World Communications Day address to people who work in media-related industries, Pope John Paul II said, “The media have a special responsibility to all who are searching: ‘to witness to the truth about life, about human dignity, about the true meaning of our freedom and mutual independence.’”

Gail observed that many cable TV customers already know what they want—and it doesn't include “adult” channels.

“The people who by and large pay the monthly fee are mothers,” he said. “And mothers do not want anything in the home … that is destructive of home and does not build a sense of home and family.”