April is cable television month. You may have seen some of the commercials talking about the advantages and benefits the system offers.
The National Cable Television Association (NCTA) also looks with pride at a few statistics: As of February, just under 60 percent of the 93.1 million U.S. television households get cable. Advertising revenues for 1990 were about $2.5 billion; subscription fees accounted for $17.8 billion. U.S. cable systems totaled 2,490 in 1970 and 9,575 by 1990.But the picture has another side. While the number of cable users has dramatically increased, so have subscription costs and customer service gripes - to such an extent, in fact, that a number of government and consumer groups are calling for regulatory action.
Congress removed cable rate-setting from local governments with the Cable Act of 1984. What that has meant, says Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), is that cable television is, in effect, unchecked by either competition or regulation.
Speaking at the Consumer Assembly sponsored by the Consumer Federation of American in Washington, D.C., this spring, Danforth, ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, talked about a bill he has introduced in Congress that would re-regulate the industry.
"Cable has brought a wide range of information to consumers," he said. But as a result of hearings held by his office, he says, he is aware of a great many problems as well. "There is no competition; consumers have no protection. The only choice is to take it or leave it."
Since deregulation, he said, rates have skyrocketed - 186 percent. "There have been dramatic increases all over the country."
There have also been cases where cable companies have refused to carry local programs and have denied access to unused channels.
His bill, he says, has three key points:
- It would permit rate regulation where no true competition exists.
- It would prohibit unfair practices.
- It would strengthen consumer protection.
The debate is in its early stages as yet. The bill currently is in committee and debate before the whole Congress will likely not come before summer.
But you can expect heated debate.
The cable industry, which believes it has already handled many of the complaints and can best address problems through self-regulation, is opposed to government intervention.
"We will oppose cable legislation this year," NCTA president James P. Mooney told members gathered at their annual convention earlier this year. "But make no mistake! We're in a real fight, and we will not win it unless we spare no effort in telling our story.
"Any cable rate increase that cannot be justified to the subscriber is a political setback to us," he cautioned NCTA members in a speech reported by the Associated Press.
But, he pointed out, "if policymakers want constantly improving programming, state-of-the-art technology and top-notch customer service - as we believe the public does - then policymakers need to recognize that all this costs money."
Cable legislation came close to being enacted last year, said Danforth. "The issue is alive and well in this session of Congress." And it is an issue that he feels hassupport of the public as well.
"When CNN asked its viewers about it, 92 percent of the respondents said the industry should be regulated."
As we've said, all the elements are there for a lively debate. And if you have opinions, information or experiences with cable that you would like to pass along, you can write to your senator or representative or to Danforth's office, 249 Russell Senate Bldg., Washington, DC 20510-2501.