My old friend, the excellent writer Dr. Susan Block, has much to say about Adelphia Cable, how it began and where Rigas, the founder, is now. And for insights into the hypocrisy and greed behind much of the American Dream, and the world of communications, and prison, especially for the elderly. Her views, based on her experiences, are worth repeating, so here is what she says, unedited.
“Once upon a time, there was a wonderful little local cable TV company called Century Cable that serviced the liberal, cosmopolitan, Blue State community of West Los Angeles, California. Its public access station featured a wide and wacky array of free expressionists, political activists, wannabe TV stars, crazy kids, eccentric exhibitionists, controversial poets, videographic artists, never-ready-for primetime players, and horny housewives (like me). My show, like others, ran for several years, without censorship, happily broadcasting sex education to the good, famously open-minded people of Santa Monica, West Hollywood and surrounding neighborhoods who, if they didn’t like it, could always change the channel.
“Then one day, sometime in the late 1990s, the Charles Keating of Cable TV, John J. Rigas, known for turning a $300 investment into cable behemoth Adelphia Communications Corp., swooped down like a hawk on a lamb and snatched up Century, as well as several other cable stations in Southern California and dozens more all over America.
“He came, he bought, he censored. Not violence, just sex. A man used to getting what he wanted if he tried hard enough, John Rigas tried mightily to make all of his newly acquired cable stations over into his image, or at least, the image he liked to portray, that of a “Family Values” man, a conservative, God-fearing paragon of Christian virtue. In that effort, he censored or took off the air Playboy, Spice, and any other shows that included nudity (except those on HBO and Showtime–money talks, of course), even the programs on Public Access TV, including mine.
“So, what’s the big deal? Stuff is censored all the time on commercial TV. Since when does a horny housewife like me have a “right” to produce my own TV show uncensored by the station? The big deal is that THIS is Public Access. And yes, I do have a right. And so do you. Public Access is the lowly but precious alternative to commercial TV in America. It is not the voice of the community. It is the voices of individuals in the community. Public Access is the People’s Broadcasting System, and the People have different points of view. According to law, when a company like Adelphia owns a cable station, they owe it to the community to provide access to the airwaves, so you and I and our neighbors can express ourselves and air our views through television. This is part of any cable company’s broadcast license. According to the US Supreme Court’s 1996 decision, Public Access programming must not be edited or censored by the cable station. That’s the LAW.
“But the law never stopped John J. Rigas & Sons from doing whatever they wanted. This pious, Church-going, Family Values family followed their conscience–not the law–and it was their conscience that told them to cover up the sex on my show, as they masturbated their figures in their accounting office.
“Now, I didn’t actually see them masturbate. I didn’t even hear them. They wouldn’t even return my phone calls when I wanted an explanation for their censorship of my programs.. But I do know one thing: Everybody masturbates. “If God had intended us not to masturbate, he would have made our arms shorter” is my favorite George Carlin maxim. Anyway, everyone does it; it’s just a question of how and with what. There’s the kind you do with your fingers…and then there’s the kind you do with figures. Financial figures. The books…
“But I am getting ahead of my Adelphia Story. At the time John Rigas and his boys were covering up various body parts on my show, I didn’t know that they were also covering up the fact that they used Adelphia balance sheets as their personal piggy bank.
“Still, when I was handed my “censored” slips, calling my show “indecent” and “obscene,” I knew I had to fight back. Unlike Playboy and most other content providers, I just couldn’t slink away with my tail between my legs. Though John Rigas wouldn’t let me show my tail or anybody else’s on his recently acquired public access stations, he couldn’t stop me from airing shows that had nothing but white letters on a black screen, saying stuff like:
“That last exhortation proved to be what the Wall Street Journal would later tout as my “prescient financial advice,” even though I didn’t know that the Rigases were not only covering up my bottom; they were covering up their own bottom – line.
“But what about the Block Curse? I’m no Harry Potter, but I must say that The Curse has done some pretty serious damage to various enemies of liberty. Though, in the case of John J. Rigas & Sons, the sheer force of its cursedness even amazed me, when Adelphia stock (which I told you to dump!) plummeted into the muck as John J. Rigas & Sons were forced to admit that they were under investigation by the Securities & Exchange Commission, and then taken away in handcuffs, because they failed to report that they had used Adelphia to guarantee as much as $2.7 billion in their own private family-incurred debts. Yes, $2.7 billion, stolen from their stockholders and, indirectly, their subscribers. Now that’s obscene.
“It’s also Family Values at work. Family Values means family first, and the Rigases certainly did put family first. The Rigas Family, that is, and screw the community. Screw the community of stockholders they screwed out of their life savings. Screw the community of cable subscribers they screwed out of their right to watch the TV shows of their choice. Screw the community of their fellow Americans that they and their counterpart CEO-banditos at Enron, WorldCom, Halliburton, Imclone, etc. screwed out of multiple billions.
“Ironically, the Rigas Boys labeled my shows “indecent.” They were big on morality and small on ethics. Morality–Family Values or Taliban Tradition–really has no place in business (like religion has no place in government), especially not in big business, which is supposed to serve lots of different people, many diverse families, many varied communities. Ethics has a vital place in business. But not morality, and certainly not moralizing. Fundamentalism is fundamentally bad for business.
“Censors aren’t all fundamentalists. Censors come in many colors, from the Right, and the Left. But one thing they all have in common is that they try to HIDE THE TRUTH from YOU. Whether it’s flesh or finances, censors don’t want you to see it. Thus, it is not surprising when the biggest moral censors turn out to be the biggest fiscal frauds. Take Charles Keating, founder of Citizens for Decency through Law before he turned into the Citizen-Poster Boy for the American Savings & Loan Disaster. Then there were the Hunt Brothers, those Texas oil-rich, John Bircher Billionaires who went from being one of the wealthiest, most right-wing, Born-Again Christian families in America to declaring bankruptcy and being convicted of conspiring to corner the silver market. Now come the Rigas Boys, the sanctimonious swindlers. Censorship is one kind of cover-up; deceptive accounting is another. It’s all about covering up figures. In my case, it was about covering up breasts, butts, vulvas and the occasional penis. They said they were cleaning up cable TV. Guess that explains the money laundering.
“The moral of My Adelphia Story is: Beware of Those Who are Holier than Thou, For Often They Are Fleecers of their Own Flocks.
“In this story, unlike so many stories, the criminals actually got caught and punished for their crimes. Last week, after a jury had found John Rigas guilty of bank fraud, securities fraud and conspiracy, U.S. District Judge Leonard Sand sentenced him to 15 years in prison (his son Timothy got 20 years). So goes the Fall of the House of Rigas. A Greek tragedy of hubris, avarice and hypocrisy, with my show as comic-erotic relief.
“But I’m of two minds about the ending of this Adelphia Story. Is it happy or sad? While a part of me is celebrating the final finish to the Fall of the House of Rigas (and the fact that I’m back on the air–without censorship–on several Adelphia stations), another part of me is wondering what good it will do our society to put an 80-year-old, cancer-racked human into prison for the rest of his life.
“Oh, I chortled along with Jimmy Breslin, over the internationally broadcast image of the hoary old hypocrite, having censored my TV shows on bondage, being handcuffed himself. And I gasped, along with the jury, at the tales of the Rigas Family heists, involving hoodwinking stockholders and stealing corporate funds to pay for fleets of fancy cars, private golf courses, plane trips, Manhattan apartments, vacations, Christmas trees flown from Coudersport to New York, and 100 pairs of the same bedroom slippers. I despise John J. Rigas for his greed and his sanctimony. But I wonder what good it will do anybody to put the old fart in jail now.
“In Italy, there is a law against imprisoning anyone over 80 years old. Why? Because a) it would probably kill them, b) they’re not likely to commit crimes at that age, c) they’re probably not going to be “reformed” in prison at that age, d) they’re only going to cost the taxpayers money with all their physical ailments that would need to be taken care of in prison, and e) it’s just unseemly (to the Italians) to lock up great grandpapa.
“To most Americans, this is a horrifying, immoral practice. How can you let a guilty person not go to prison just because he’s old? But then, America doesn’t mind locking up people for no good reason, helping to create a situation in which we have more folks in prison than any other country in the world. Our huge, burgeoning prison system is built on principles of revenge and punishment (and, increasingly, torture), rather than anything to do with reforming the prisoner or what’s best for society.
“Revenge can be emotionally satisfying, but has no tangible social benefits. What would be best for society would be to strip John Rigas of his wealth, give his money to the poor, and then make the old hypocrite do “community service” in a lowly job at one of Adelphia’s public access stations for the remainder of his days, scheduling shows like mine.”