A couple of weeks ago, I received another notice from TCI (Telecommunications Inc.), our local cable provider and the nation's largest cable TV franchise, informing me that monthly rates would be increased.
The reasons noted are familiar: inflation, increased operating costs and so forth. It would not be much, only 85 cents for the basic tier rate and slightly more for extended services.I quickly calculated that my monthly bill would be approaching the $20 range for the basic service. CNN coverage (in spite of its inaccuracies) of the Persian Gulf war is alone worth the fee.
Although I am an adamant supporter of television, I am, however, concerned. What really bothers me is that at present there is no restriction on cable operators regarding rate increases. Since 1984, cable rates have increased 32 percent, clearly higher than the inflation rate.
Beside the rate issue, there is also another concern. Cable operators may also decide without public input what channels will be included in the basic tier.
The airwaves have always been under the close scrutiny of its citizens, but the cable TV industry, thanks to deregulation in 1984, has legally avoided answering to the private citizen about this medium which has become a vital source of information and entertainment.
In June of 1983, Arizona's Barry Goldwater stood on the Senate floor and railed against New York City and other local governments for trying to extort high fees from cable television operators. It was a highly effective appeal for what many people had come to see as a basic American right, access to television.
Within that year, Congress passed legislation to deregulate cable TV rates and limit local government control over the cable TV industry.
Now the tables have turned. Viewers and politicians alike have been outspoken about runaway rates and have suggested that the cable industry is a virtual monopoly. Most agree that deregulation has gone too far. "The public is being ripped off by cable TV," says Rep. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio. "The little kid on the block has now become the big bully."
Consumer concern about runaway rates has resulted in new legal attempts to reregulate cable television. Cable's critics are catching the ear of Congress and it appears they have spoken loudly enough to influence the passage of legislation which will most likely give local communities more say in how much cable services should cost.
Recently, James H. Quello, an FCC commissioner, said at a broadcasting conference in Las Vegas that it does not serve the public interest for large multisystem operators (cable franchises) to adopt arbitrary rate increases and blanket policies that exclude competing technologies.
One of those technologies is low-power television. Low-power stations have approximately the same reach and power as a radio station. They will address issues and include programming directed to local community interests. High school football games, for example, will be part of their programming format.
Currently, field hearings are being held to gather evidence of the impact of cable on programming broadcast industries and the extent to which the cable industry faces meaningful competition. These hearings are extremely unusual for the Federal Communications Commission and underscore how important the FCC feels cable issues are.
The Justice Department has backed new standards proposed by the FCC that would allow local reregulation of cable TV in many communities.
In 1989, Senate Bill 1880 was introduced to "Amend Title VI of the Communications Act of 1934 to ensure carriage on cable television of local news and other programming and to restore the right of local regulatory authority to regulate cable TV rates and for other purpose."
In essence, this bill would have given cities more control over cable rates. SB1880 was approved by the House, but a veto threat held up passage by the Senate.
Notwithstanding the fact that there were ambiguities in this bill as drafted, it did include several provisions that would have enhanced competition and alter the monopoly cable systems presently have.
On Jan. 14, Sen. John Danforth introduced SB12, 12, which includes essentially the same language as SB1880. Many politicians indicate privately that Congress will likely approve this new bill, which will give consumers more say in both programming and rates.
This will be welcome legislation for at least 40 percent of the citizens of the state who are cable subscribers.