Cable TV: Do Bostonians care enough to see the very best?

Cable television is coming. So what? So, before Boston's 242,000 TV households are wired into some 80 channels of "snow"-free clarity, a few facts:

* There are more television sets in this country -- one for every two people -- than there are bathtubs.

* By high school graduation, your child (unless he or she is not average) will have spent 11,000 hours in the classroom -- and 15,000 hours before a TV set.

* By the time members of the television generation reach 65 -- unless they, too are not average -- they will have spent nine of those years watching television.

* When cable television arrives, Bostonians -- if they, also, are average -- will increase their television viewing by about five hours a week.

* Boston is one of the last markets in the nation's great franchising gold rush, which had captured 15 million subscribers in 10,430 communities by last March.

These are the sorts of statistics that spiced conversations at a conference on cable television held last month at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

It was a timely gathering.By summer's end, Mayor Kevin H. White will tap his wand over one of the two supplicants for the Boston franchise. Rising in response will be either Cablevision, the company that wired southern Manhattan, or Warner Amex, the jointly owned subsidiary of Warner Communications and American Express that now holds franchises in Chelsea, Somerville, Everett, and 12 more Massachusetts communities.

The winner then will run off to the bank for the $75 million to $93 million needed to lace wires through manholes and drape them over poles. After all, a lot is at stake. The winner intends to earn either $32 million (Warner Amex) or

Why this kind of money? What is cable?

"Cable," said keynote speaker Nicholas Johnson, grabbing the microphone lead at his podium as an example, "is a wire!"

By that apparently self-evident statement, the former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission explained a crucial fact: The technology of cable television is remarkably simple. It involves connecting the set not to an antenna but to a wire.

Technically, two results follow. The signal, untroubled by landings at Logan , is clear. And the number of channels, formerly restricted by the limited band of frequencies, multiplies at least tenfold.

But if the technology is simple, its ramifications -- on the social fabric, the educational systems, the press, the cultural life, and the government of any community it enters -- are vast. What Mr. Johnson asks, are the implications?"There's no way the guy who is an expert on that piece of wire," he asserts, "can answer that question."

Nor is it a question easily answered by local communities -- largely because they've never had the chance to ask it. They have generally taken what the networks send them. And the streets are still full of cynics who grumble that cable will simply multiply the dosages of network-style soap, sap, and hype.

But Boston, schooled by a decade of mistakes and triumphs in other cabled communities, has taken steps to make the medium produce a different message. Its well-crafted request for proposals (RFP) runs to 200 pages. It is so stringent, in fact, that only the two companies filed proposals by the April 23 deadline. Among its requirements:

* The wiring must be completed within five years, with areas of poor reception, such as East Boston, done first.

* Five percent of the gross revenues are to be plowed back into a nonprofit corporation that will oversee "access" -- the ability of the community to produce its own shows on up to 20 percent of all residential channels.

* The franchiser will sell bonds to interested Boston residents or institutions -- thus giving them a share in the profits.

The empty sack of the RFP has been filled by the two companies with different goodies. Cablevision promises a 52-channel basic service for an unprecedentedly low subscription fee of $2 a month. Another $7 buys a movie channel, Home Box Office. Six dollars more brings 20 additional channels plus a two-way system -- allowing the viewer to respond to polls or charge to his credit card that new lawn mower he just saw advertised.

Warner Amex can do that, too, with its QUBE system. Its basic package provides 36 channels for about $6 a month, with the next 62 coming for another $ 10. It offers two movie channels -- including Galavision, the Spanish movie channel, for about $9 per month.

And both offer home fire and burglar alarm systems, some 50 channels for institutional use, and local studios.

And the money? It comes from subscribers, who on average will spend $5,000 apiece over the next 20 years. If only half the city subscribes, that comes to more than $600 million in revenues by the year 2000 for a system which, once installed, essentially runs itself.

What will we get for the money? That , to update the old television phrase, is the $64 million question. Will local content tilt, as it does in several cities, toward a mixture of earnest astrologers, live pornography, Gospel religion, and "vanity" productions by rock groups and people who used to write letters to the editor? Will the cable companies let commercials creep into their programs? In a world where documentaries on abortion are seen by some as educational and others as amoral, who will decide what gets broadcast?

The mayor's cable franchising coordinator, Richard Borten, does not tune out these problems. Despite a campaign by the nationwide "Coalition for a Better TV" to stamp out sex on television, he is against censorship, or what he calls a "municipal index." But as a family man, he wants to keep unseemly programming out of sight of children.

The RFP mandates a free lockout device, by which parents can shut off some channels when they are out. But Mr. Borten acknowledges that it will be available only on request -- and that the very parents who have the insight to use it may not be the ones who most need to. "There are many homes where the TV set is used as a baby sitter," he says, "and where there's virtually no control." In too many places, he adds, "children are watching TVm rather than programs."m

The real problem, however, runs deeper. How, with fourscore channels to choose among, are parents to review shows and decide which to lock out -- or even which to watch for themselves? Can they trust the cable TV magazines to make distinctions among such tags as "adult language" and "mature situations"? Or will the excess of programming produce an electronic gluttony, doping viewers even further into stupor?

In the longer run, will the printed word disappear? Should newspapers be worried? Will the encapsulation of stories so trim the news that viewers will get only the stereotypes of world events without the understanding behind them?

None of these things need happen. The standards of cable productions have little to do with technology. They depend on the standards of the producers. Already televisions is bringing live coverage of regional theater and ballet. It can create highly specialized channels for individuals willing to pay for the visual equivalent of, say, a gardening magazine.In Great Britain, with such things as BBC's Ceefax, ITV's Oracle, and British Telecom's Prestel, television has shown that there is a market for written information displayed on the screen -- everything from news and stock quotations to recipes and airline seating availability. With the potential for satellite communications, there may even come a time when displaced foreigners can tune into channels from home.

What then, needs to happen in Boston? The RFP speaks of creating a not-for-profit "Access and Programming Corporation," funded by 5 percent of the cable operator's revenues. Its structure has yet to be determined. But because of still-unresolved questions about the nature and ethics of a cable system -- as well as the sheer bulk of the administrative tasks ahead -- that structure is crucial.

So far, the mayor appears to have behaved laudably, keeping his distance from the issue -- even, apparently, from three of his former employees now on the Warner Amex staff. Unfortunately, he has a record of filling influential positions through political patronage. That must not happen with the corporation.

Interested Bostonians can dial into the process at a public forum sponsored by the non- profit Cable Television access Coalition on June 11 (at the Boston Center for Adult Education, 5 Commonwealth Avenue, 7:30 p.m.) and at two official public hearings at the Boston Public Library on June 23 and 25.

Those may be days not to stay home and watch the tube. If Boston's cable system is to be better than average, its citizens m ust be more than passive.

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