This past Friday Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee took the floor for a brief statement during the morning hour. He had the unhappy look of a man frustrated beyond endurance. That was indeed the case.
"Mr. President," said Gore, "I rise today in great disappointment with the unsuccessful conclusion of our efforts to bring cable television legislation to the Senate floor this year. It is painfully clear that the White House, with an anti-consumer ideology, has successfully killed cable legislation for this Congress."Gore went on to charge the president with "a blatant and arrogant affront" to cable consumers who had been "Bushwhacked and Sununued." He predicted that cable operators would soon impose a new round of rate increases. He accused them of an "arrogant abuse of their monopoly power."
The doomed bill would have directed the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that cable fees are "reasonable," though this responsibility could be shifted to a local city council. The FCC also would be given some authority to prescribe standards of adequate service to consumers.
After 10 days of hearings, the bill rocketed out of the Senate Commerce Committee in June on a vote of 18-1. It seemed to be in good shape for passage, but nothing happened. More accurately, nothing publicly visible happened, but gradually the word spread that the White House was cool to cold on the measure. Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, who had been the lone opponent in committee, put a hold on the bill. That killed it for this Congress, but Gore will revive it next year.
The issues here are not simple issues. Several months ago I wrote a column opposing the bill. Down with federal regulation! Let the marketplace do its job! Never having been a cable subscriber, I naturally knew all about cable. Leave the industry alone, I said, and if consumers object to the prices, let 'em watch their local TV channels and stop complaining.
Now I am a cable subscriber, and I dunno. From everything I can learn, the cable companies - some of the companies, anyhow - are behaving in the domineering fashion of the old robber barons. They are fighting against any form of competition. They bitterly oppose rate fixing by local city councils. They have sweet little monopolies that produce a gorgeous cash flow, and they mean to keep business as usual.
The cable contract that was sent me breathed hostility in every line. The terms and conditions were set forth in 2,000 words of agate type. As a subscriber I would have no rights the company was bound to respect. The company would decree where and when a connection would be installed. A deposit would be demanded. Eventually the deposit might be refunded, but no interest would be paid. Rates could be raised on 30 days' notice. In sum, every provision went to the company's convenience and profit. I could take it or leave it. I sighed and took it.
Such contracts, I am told, are standard in the industry. Some companies engage in practices that appear to be blatantly in restraint of trade. The committee heard persuasive evidence of price gouging far beyond the increases that might be attributed to inflation.
The key question, it seems to me, goes to the nature of cable TV. Is this a necessary service? Should cable be classed with electricity, telephones, natural gas, taxicabs and local buses? If so, cable should be regulated as other monopolies and franchised operations are regulated.
But if cable is no more than a convenience or a luxury, like a gourmet grocery, then regulation by federal law or local ordinance becomes a different matter. Cable companies should be left to compete with such new technologies as wireless cable, direct broadcast satellites, and the fiber optic capacity of telephone companies.
As a brand-new subscriber, I have to confess that in the past month I have watched nothing on cable but Congress on C-SPAN. This alone may justify the monthly fee. After all, what other comedy or tragedy does a consumer need?