Cable's Crossroads

TWENTY years ago media theorists envisioned a ``hooked-up nation,'' with cable television penetrating every living room, bringing a boggling array of programs and services. Now that more than 50 million American homes have cable - 55 percent of all the homes with television - the reality, for many viewers, is not quite as good as the earlier vision. Thousands of consumers have concluded that cable promises everything, but delivers primarily ever-higher rates. Critics of the industry point out its monopolistic tendencies - both in the traditional system of granting one firm the sole franchise in a community and in the increasing concentration of program production in a few giant companies.

Congress has been hearing complaints from back home, and a number of bills have been filed to slap federal regulations back on cable. The industry was deregulated only two and a half years ago, when the rate-setting powers originally given communities were removed. Cable operators could charge what the market would bear. The rates for basic service - excluding the more expensive premium channels - climbed by about 30 percent for most viewers.

In western Tennessee, one outfit, U.S. Cable, hiked overall rates by 40 percent and offered no new services. That tactic disgusted even others in the business and heightened the fervor of lawmakers like Tennessee's Sen. Albert Gore to curb the industry's freewheeling ways. Customers scattered around the US complain about poor servicing of equipment, and ask why friends in neighboring towns can watch programs their own cable operators don't offer. Given local monopolies, viewers have little means of getting alternative programming.

Reregulation efforts in Congress range from reimposing rate-setting restraints to opening up the cable field to the nation's phone companies. The monopolistic aspects of cable have come under fire in the courts too - with various rulings on the constitutionality of the exclusive franchise system or the ``must carry'' rules that require cable operators to include all local broadcast stations in their service. Definitive rulings on cable's First Amendment ramifications have yet to come, however.

In fact, so much is yet to come in this field that experts warn that regulations thrown on now could quickly be outmoded. That's reason enough for Congress to proceed cautiously. And one would hope, at least, that the industry would begin to police itself on such issues as reasonable rate policies and better service.

On the plus side, some major cable companies have shown an admirable commitment to public service by providing free (and commercial-free) programming to schools.

But with the telephone giants knocking on the door, the broadcast networks desperately looking for ways to compete more effectively with cable, and cable fending off other technologies like satellite dishes, the battle over who gets to the viewer with the most is just being joined. Consumers and would-be regulators will definitely stay tuned.

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