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Off Limits

You go, Dennis!: Press releases don't usually excite us, but this one stuck out. On July 3 we received an official notice from the Denver Post on its letterhead, announcing that editor-in-chief Dennis Britton was retiring August 31. Joy in Mudville! Any discombobulation at the dailies is always good news,...
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You go, Dennis!: Press releases don't usually excite us, but this one stuck out. On July 3 we received an official notice from the Denver Post on its letterhead, announcing that editor-in-chief Dennis Britton was retiring August 31. Joy in Mudville! Any discombobulation at the dailies is always good news, and we'd like to think that our recent prank on Britton at the Post's Snapshot of Colorado town meeting in Colorado Springs ("They Came From Denver," May 21) may have pushed him over the edge. But wait! Confirm or deny, that's our motto. So we called the Post newsroom to ask whether the press release was true, and the brain-dead person at the city desk informed us, "Well, nobody's here, so I don't know whether it's true or not." We persisted, however, and she finally consented to find someone who would actually think about our question. After a long wait on hold that confirmed a close working relationship between the Post and the Muzak Corporation, The Man himself came on the line: Dennis Britton. "We got this press release sayin' yer leavin'. Is it true?" we asked. "No," The Man chuckled. "It's not true." "So," we said, "you ain't gonna go raise bees in Vernal, Utah, and Dinky Singleton ain't gonna put up a bronze bust of you in the newsroom and then invite the public in for a tour, like the press release said?" "No," the editor replied with elegance and wit. Britton went on to say that the press release probably was the work of a disgruntled former employee who has pulled similar tricks in the past. We faxed Britton a copy of it to cement relations between our two great papers. Once again, it was confirmation that this former employee who's tweaking the Post with his phony press releases is showing more creativity now than he ever showed as a writer for the paper.

Let's get ready to bumble: Rookie RTD boardmember Robert Ore, appointed just last March by Mayor Wellington Webb, is a bona fide veteran now that he's had his first strange encounter with a fellow boardmember. After a meeting last month, says Ore, boardmember Jack McCroskey "tried to pick a fight with me." The scrappy septuagenarian "was hollering and carrying on," says Ore, who adds that, contrary to a rumor going around, the men did not have to be pulled apart by a security guard. "The guy's seventy years old," he says. "There's not much you can do other than just ignore him."

Actually, McCroskey is 73, and he says he's ready to rumble with Ore anytime Junior feels up to it. "He's a goddamn liar and a bully," says McCroskey. "No security guard had to intervene. We've got a place full of them that get paid a ton of money to do nothing, but a security guard didn't have to protect me." McCroskey says the confrontation stemmed from a disagreement over which light-rail corridor RTD should build first. "Ore just came after me and said he was gonna put me under the ground, put me under the table, put me under the floor or something," says McCroskey. "I said, 'Start it, Bob.' I'm not gonna let him do that to me at any time or any place."

For fight fans watching at home, the latest tiff pales in comparison to other RTD clashes; just last week, for instance, boardmember Ben Klein sued the agency in an attempt to force board president Jon Caldara to restart a study of the west light-rail corridor. McCroskey himself has sued RTD in the past, in a dispute over whether it should refund tax money, and the members have publicly called each other liars and bitches and cowards. (Oh, my!)

McCroskey admits that RTD has had its share of family feuds. But, he notes, "it's been a long time since I had a guy stare me in the face and tell me he was gonna put me under the table, under the ground. That could be interpreted as a death threat."

Ore says that's ridiculous--and adds that if anyone's trying to knock anything off, it's McCroskey, who would love to do away with the west and east corridors. Retorts McCroskey of Ore, "He's trying to kill the southeast corridor, that's what he's trying to do."

Re-retorts Ore, now in just his fourth month on the board, "I think my honeymoon's over."

Going for broker: As AT&T's stock continues to freefall, dragged down by worries about the company's proposed purchase of TCI, it's beginning to look like John Malone's latest bit of super-salesmanship may actually need a shot of the Viagra the TCI titan so casually joked about at the press conference announcing the maybe-merger. Should the blood rush out of the deal--as it did during TCI's corporatus interruptus with Bell Atlantic four years ago--TCI's stock may be the one to go limp. In the meantime, local cities stuck in the middle of franchise agreements with the local cable-TV conglom can only wait and see how the pairing will affect them.

"Unlike a lot of people, I'm a bit concerned," says Norman Beecher, an attorney who represents the Greater Metro Cable Consortium, a group of local municipalities who've banded together to barter collectively with TCI. "Although this is vertical consolidation in the industry, which is the reason the Justice Department isn't taking a particularly critical look at it, you've got two companies who were both at least accused of being dominant in their areas; each has been called something of a 900-pound gorilla."

Among the mysteries posed by the gorillas' mating dance: whether AT&T will have to double or triple cable rates to recoup its huge investment in TCI. The market will deliver the final judgment on Malone's belief that there are billions to be made from a single company piping everything from telephone and Internet service to the Home Shopping Network into consumers' homes. But cities don't have the option of wheeling and dealing. Thanks to monopoly contracts, they'll have to live with whatever cable company Wall Street gives them, whether it's a Malone-led TCI or an offshoot controlled by AT&T. Richard Varnes, the Boulder municipal cable director who last year delivered the prescient warning that TCI's huge debt service was threatening its ability to provide a promised local fiber-optic rebuild--"the 800-pound gorilla has a big tab on his charge card right at the moment," he said--says he sees reason for hope. AT&T's an even bigger gorilla, he notes, adding that he believes "they [AT&T] have a rational game plan going into this that takes into account the technical and customer-service legacies of the cable industry." (Among those legacies: TCI backed out of its local fiber-optic rebuild before it was halfway done, leaving cities fuming.)

Varnes says he thinks AT&T chairman C. Michael Armstrong saw value in TCI because of the way the cable company has consolidated its control of cable systems in major metropolitan areas, a bit of bundling that could allow a phone company to compete with local carriers by reaching through the cable pipe. TCI, for instance, has headlocks in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.--and in metro Denver, where the company controls 90 percent of its own backyard. The downside, of course, is that TCI's relations with local customers have tanked. Two years ago Boulder voters got so fed up with TCI that they turned down a proposed franchise agreement, forcing the city to make do with a temporary contract extension. Aurora and Westminster have feuded with the company over last year's abrupt termination of the fiber-optic rebuild. And in Denver, the state's largest cable market, TCI's franchise agreement expires in June 1999, meaning that Denver will have to negotiate a new deal at the same time that Malone and Armstrong are busy punching each other in the shoulder and shouting, "Flinch!"

The most immediate consequence for local cities should the AT&T deal go through will be having to haggle all over again with a new corporate entity--a prospect they may actually relish, given their past dealings with TCI. Only later will they discover whether it is in fact possible to channel phone service over stone-age cable lines--and whether price-gouging will take place either way. "The relative movement of the stock price after the merger tells you where most analysts believe this is going--that AT&T may have bitten off more than it can chew," says Varnes. "Certainly the cable plant in general is in no way ready for a switch to offering anything that looks like local exchange service over coaxial lines. Internet service is certainly possible, but it will be some time before the system is technically tight enough and before service organizations are tight enough to provide phone service on the level of reliability you've come to expect from a local exchange carrier."

Hold the phone--and keep an eye on that cable bill.

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