NEW YORK — The politics of cable television has taken on the tenor of rush-hour traffic in the Big Apple.
With about as much subtlety as horn-honking cabbies, the state's top politicians have taken sides in a battle between two media conglomerates - Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and Time-Warner.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) and Gov. George Pataki (R), who maintain that Fox is bringing jobs to the city, have sided with Mr. Murdoch in his quest to get his new 24-hour all-news channel on Time-Warner's cable system in New York. In a further effort to put pressure on Time, New York State Attorney General Dennis Vacco has said he would look into the dispute for any antitrust violations. Executives at Time, which owns Cable News Network, say there is no room on the 78-channel cable system for Murdoch.
The political muscle-flexing underscores the long-standing debate over cable access. While it's not unusual for cable programmers to have friends in government, the actions by top state politicians concerns some media experts.
"It is the most bizarre situation," says Lawrence Grossman, the former president of NBC and PBS. Manhattan borough president Ruth Messinger says the mayor's interference "seems to me to be way beyond the pale." She has asked the city's Conflict of Interest Board to look into the situation because the mayor's wife, Donna Hanover, works for Fox.
In the 1970s, city officials across the US tried to influence the nature and content of the expanding cable systems. "Awards [for cable contracts] were made because cable systems often promised to carry particular services and programs, usually because they said they would put on local news," says Monroe Price, a law professor at Yeshiva University's Benjamin Cardoza School of Law. But a 1984 federal law tried to preclude such influence, he notes. Now cable operators can only promise broad categories of programming in return for franchises.
Indeed, a case currently before the US Supreme Court examines whether the cable companies can be compelled to air local television stations, even against their wishes, as a 1992 federal law now requires.
The New York battle may also raise the issue of who can use so-called public-access channels. Mayor Giuliani has proposed that Fox be awarded one of the five channels reserved for public programming, which broadcast everything from pornography to educational programs. Advocates are appalled at the mayor's proposal to give away one of the channels.
"The notion that public-access channels should be eliminated to make room for a multibillion commercial venture illustrates how fragile the public's rights are," says Jeff Chester of the Center for Media Education in Washington.
ALTHOUGH Time-Warner says it has no room on its system for the Fox channel, which debuted Monday, Mr. Grossman says the battle also illustrates the difficulties of ensuring competition as long as the cable distributor also provides the programming for the channels. Grossman says, "it raises the serious question that people are not being given the opportunity to decide what channel is the best. It's being decided by the [cable] owners."
When NBC bought the Financial News Network, for example, Time would only allow the new channel, called CNBC, on the air if it did not compete with CNN. Since then, NBC has used another channel it controlled, "America's Talking Now," to present its own 24-hour news channel, MSNBC.
One solution to the problem could be more channels. In 1993, Time-Warner told New York it would work quickly to offer its subscribers 500 channels. "Why haven't Time-Warner and the city gotten us those channels?" asks Ms. Messinger. It is among the questions that are likely to come up this week since the City Council is reviewing its cable-franchise contracts - and the traffic jam on the cable lines.