Legislative boost for cable TV

If you are among the 60 percent or so of Americans who do not have access to a local cable television system, take cheer. Thanks to this week's decisive action by the US Senate there is now a strong likelihood that a cable TV firm will be offering services in your community by the end of this decade.

The Senate measure - which roared through that chamber by a top-heavy 87-to-9 vote - brings order to the cable industry. By establishing a uniform, nationwide standard for cable TV firms, it strikes against the hodgepodge of local regulations that have marked the industry up to this time - local regulations that, in the eyes of many broadcasters, have tended to frustrate the actual growth of cable.

Under the Senate measure:

* While communities still will have authority to award a cable franchise, they will not be able to take away the franchise during a subsequent renewal process except for exceptional circumstances, such as proving that the firm did not live up to its original agreement.

* License fees that a community would require from the cable firm can be no more than 5 percent of the firm's annual revenues. Moreover, in areas where the firms would be subject to rate controls pertaining to subscribers, the cable firm would be restricted to a rate increase no more than the increase in the cost of living. In communities where there is lively television competition from conventional channels, local governments would have no say over rate increases to subscribing households.

Such restrictions should not be deemed encroachments on local government. Rather, they would enable cable firms to compete for a profit against the many diverse types of broadcasting and communications delivery systems that are expected to be available during the next decade. Such alternatives include not only existing conventional television channels, but new satellite-to-rooftop systems and data transmission services offered by local telephone companies.

The Senate bill thus imposes a responsibility on municipalities to select well-financed, carefully managed, and locally compatible cable firms. One particularly sensitive aspect of the Senate measure is that it strictly limits the community's authority to regulate the content of broadcasting offered by the cable firm. The House, which has yet to put together its own version of the cable TV measure, might well take up the issue of content in a more detailed way than did the Senate; not with an eye to imposing censorship, but to ensuring that cable broadcasting be kept at the highest level of excellence.

Cable television offers remarkable opportunities for local communities. Just imagine being able to watch - right in your own living room - crucial meetings of your school board, town government or selectmen, or local athletic or cultural events. And of course, there will be the great diversity of national programming coming through cable service. The Senate measure provides a good starting place for a vigorous, well-financed cable industry. The House should act as quickly as possible in voting out a similar measure.

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