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Teleservice Co. v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue.

decided: March 24, 1958.


Author: Kalodner

Before MARIS, KALODNER and STALEY, Circuit Judges.

KALODNER, Circuit Judge.

Were "contributions" received by the taxpayer, a television signal transmission service, from its customers, "toward the total cost of constructing" its facilities, under a contract which simultaneously provided for such "contributions" and the further payment of a "monthly maintenance charge", includable as "gross income" under Section 22(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1939?*fn1

That is the issue presented by this petition for review of the decision of the Tax Court*fn2 which answered it affirmatively, thereby making the "contributions" toward the cost of construction taxable as gross income. The Tax Court's decision was premised on its "Ultimate Finding" that the "contributions" to the taxpayer "* * * were not gifts or contributions to capital; they were part of the payment for services rendered or to be rendered by the petitioner [taxpayer] and are includable in petitioner's [taxpayer's] gross income."

It must immediately be noted that the "Ultimate Finding" of the Tax Court "* * * was in the nature of an ultimate finding of fact and since such finding is but a legal inference from other facts it is subject to review free of the restraining impact of the so-called 'clearly erroneous' rule applicable to ordinary findings of fact by the trial court * * *."*fn3

The facts may be summarized as follows:

Teleservice Company of Wyoming Valley ("taxpayer") is a Pennsylvania corporation.It promoted, constructed and now operates for profit a community antenna television system at Wilkes-Barre and Kingston, Pennsylvania.

The residents of Wilkes-Barre and Kingston were unable by conventional television roof-top or built-in antennas to receive television signals of an adequate visual quality due to the fact that the cities are located in valleys surrounded by hills which effectively screened or cut off television signals which would otherwise be available for reception by conventional methods. Therefore, in January, 1951, the taxpayer's incorporators determined that a company should be organized for the purpose of providing television signals to the residents of the Wilkes-Barre area through a community television system.

In 1951 no licenses for Ultra High Frequency (U.H.F.) television stations (to provide a local, conventional television service to the area) had then been issued, but there were indications that such licenses would be granted in the near future, and it was known that at least one company in Wilkes-Barre would make application for such license. This created a hazard to investment of money in the enterprise contemplated by the taxpayer. In addition, taxpayer's founders determined that the construction of a community antenna system was an unknown business with no adequate precedent to follow and without definite information available on past experience.

Two community antenna systems were investigated - one in Lansford, Pennsylvania, which was observed in operation, and another in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, which was in the process of being constructed. The taxpayer was the third company of its type in existence.

After a study of some six months, the taxpayer selected a suitable location for the interception of television signals on top of the mountain range surrounding Wilkes-Barre and Kingston. It found that it would be necessary to run a trunk line of coaxial cables from the location selected to the edge of the populated area on the fringe of Wilkes-Barre, a distance of about five miles, before any significant service could be offered. This "dead" trunk line was not found in the other systems studied; it would be costly, and taxpayer was not certain it would be a success. The Radio Corporation of America (R.C.A.) provided engineers to make a survey of the projected system, and furnished estimates of the cost of the equipment and materials that would be required. On the basis of the experience of the two other community antenna systems and the advice received from R.C.A. it was estimated that it would cost 96 cents per foot for the trunk line cable or feeder line cable to be installed and erected. This cost tended to be constant, regardless of the size of the system, since the only fixed cost was that of constructing the antenna tower atop the mountains which was relatively small - $1,500 to $3,000. It was calculated that the cost of constructing a system to serve Wilkes-Barre and Kingston would be as much as $250,000.

Before construction was begun or money paid into its treasury by its founders, the taxpayer decided that construction of the system would have to be financed essentially through contributions from prospective customers or subscribers since it would be too great a risk for it to undertake the entire investment and that, in any event, it would be impossible for it to realize a profit should it do so. It determined that whatever profit it might realize from the venture would come from monthly service charges.

Under the program formulated by the taxpayer contributors were divided into two classes - residential and commercial. The residential customers were to be required to make contributions of $145.00; the commercial customers $200.00. These varying scales were fixed by the taxpayer because, although service installation costs were the same with respect to both classes of customers, it believed that the commercial establishments could afford to contribute a greater amount than could a private individual. In fixing the amount of the contributions to be made by customers the taxpayer took into consideration its estimated construction costs and amounts solicited by other community systems. In this connection taxpayer estimated that the contributions, if it obtained the number of customers anticipated, would just about balance the costs of construction of its entire system.

The taxpayer's program also provided that residential customers were to pay $4.00 monthly and commercial customers $6.00 monthly as a service or maintenance charge in addition to their initial contributions. The monthly charges were designed to cover the maintenance of the community system and included an element of profit to the taxpayer. The rates were not set by any regulatory commission.

The taxpayer's system was constructed in several distinct stages. The first step was the erection of a tower and intercepting antennas and the installation of a main trunk line cable, approximately five miles in length, to the first distribution area. The cost of this first stage, $24,138.49, was advanced by the taxpayer's incorporators.

On completion of this first step potential subscribers were solicited. When a sufficient number of applications for service had been received to indicate that further extension of the system would be feasible the taxpayer entered into contracts with subscribers and then proceeded with construction in the area in which they were located. Six months elapsed after completion of the initial construction before the first extension of the system was undertaken. Thereafter, the delay between extensions was substantially reduced.

Upon acceptance of an area for the extension of service, taxpayer entered into contracts with the subscribers. Taxpayer agreed "to furnish subscriber at the place of installation * * * a television signal transmission service". The subscriber, in turn, agreed (1) to contribute the sum specified "toward the total cost of constructing a system for the transmission of a television signal" and (2) to pay "a monthly maintenance" charge which would entitle him to receive service. While a contribution was a prerequisite to eligibility to use of the system, it did not entitle the contributor to receive television signals. The contributor was required to make monthly payments, in advance, in order to receive the signals. Potential subscribers were advised that the contribution was in aid of construction of the facility for supplying the television signals, and had no bearing on the service, which would be charged as an extra item.

A contributor could not sell, assign, or transfer his eligibility to receive television signals, but he remained eligible to receive the signals without additional cost if he moved to another part of Wilkes-Barre or Kingston. However, the person who moved into the contributor's old home was ...

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