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TV, Like Nature, Abhors a Vacuum

By ALAN BUNCE / July 30, 1992



CURBING cable TV is a touchy issue. Future profits are involved, of course, and also the viewer pique that has built up over rate rises and servicing since the industry was deregulated in 1984.

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Last time I looked, House and Senate versions of a bill re-regulating cable - one that limits rates and imposes other controls - were ready to go to a conference committee. It appears the differences can be ironed out without much trouble and a final version sent to the president's desk not long before the election, which should prove interesting.

The law expected to emerge is designed, among other things, to promote cable competition and more stable or even lower fees. About 40 percent of the population does not subscribe to cable, and the law might encourage more people to do so, adding cable channels to their present broadcast-TV menus. I've even heard predictions that as two or more cable companies compete in the same town, some homes may decide to pipe in more than one service, possibly doubling their channel choices.

But a much bigger change in how people get their TV programs is looming. At the moment it lacks the visibility of the cable issue and is perhaps a decade off. But if it happens, it would add a huge home capacity for receiving TV programming, as well as let customers access a whole electronic world of data, including libraries and university resources.

All this would be accomplished by the simple regulatory expedient of allowing phone companies to use their telephone wires to carry TV programs. It's something the phone companies have previously not been allowed to do. Cable interests, the government, and viewer-advocacy groups are forever battling over how to wire American homes, but it's been assumed that a gigantic phone industry, already in control of a vast system of wired homes, would have too great a competitive advantage if allowed into the TV b usiness.

Cable companies especially dislike the phone-line idea, but the Federal Communications Commission plan calls for changing the rules to allow it. The FCC hopes the new terms will promote the creation of a giant national system of fiber-optic cables that could carry reams of information, including many TV channels. Some estimates put the cost of providing fiber optics in place of the present copper wires at only $100 billion, although once you start citing other estimates, you're talking real money - up to

some $400 billion. Phone companies might even be allowed to get into the business of offering their own entertainment channels.

One way or another, it adds up to an awful lot of channels - more, I venture, than the industry's creative energies can meaningfully deal with. We do need some extra channels for new transmission needs. But let's say a fiber-optics system is put in place, costing a third of a trillion or so, and you're able to receive who knows how many channels. Then what? What do programmers put on them?

Oh, I know about the myriad customized channels that TV visionaries are always taking about - one for every tiny interest - along with local access and all that. But it still doesn't really justify all that air time.

Originally, before a Parkinson's law of occupying available air space took effect, stations didn't seem to consider it a sacred duty to be on screen every second, as if TV abhorred a vacuum as much as nature did. Even when there were fewer channels, people used to hear the national anthem and then go to bed, knowing the airwaves were getting a rest at the same time they were. But it wasn't long before TV critics were already remarking on the lengths networks were driven to to fill those blank hours gapin g inexorably day after day, night after night.

And now turn on the set at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. You'll see some good stuff, like old movies, but you'll also see taped repeats of the evening news delivered by anchors wearing an 11 o'clock smile in the middle of the night. You'll see shopping networks still continuously making their manic pitches in the wee hours, like perpetual-motion machines. You'll see signs everywhere of stations filling air time from the same motivation mountain climbers assault Everest, because it's there.

Put to the right use - in business and academics - extra channels can be valuable, but for entertainment, an equal increase in creative capacity is needed, and that usually runs out first.