Cable TV in Europe: challenging government's cultural dominance

IN this grimy Rhine River industrial town, the outlines of a Europe-wide revolution are visible. To see it, just flip on the television. Instead of a dry documentary on one of Germany's three state-controlled channels, an American football game beams in loud and clear. Turning the dial, one finds French broadcasts, first-run movies, music video clips, educational programs, and local news.

Germany's first private cable operator began broadcasting here in Ludwigshafen Jan. 1. Some areas of Europe had previously been cabled, but almost exclusively to receive better reception for existing channels. The network here is revolutionary because it breaks the government's television monopoly.

Now, the rest of Europe stands ready to follow the example. In Britain 12 cable franchises have just been awarded. In France the country's first channel, Canal Plus, is scheduled to go on air by year's end. Soon, all of Europe could be linked by satellite and cable hookups - perhaps to watch the same American football game.

''Ludwigshafen is finally going to be known for something more than chemical pollution,'' beams Claus Det-jen, director of the cable project. ''We're the wave of the future.''

Perhaps. But the prospect of cable infuriates as many Europeans as it pleases. The fearful ask: Will viewers be willing to pay enough to make the system, costing billions of deutschemarks, pounds, and francs, financially viable? Will satellite broadcasting make cable obsolete before it is fully operational?

Above all, the doubters demand, will the deregulation of the airwaves submerge European TV under a flood of American movies, sitcoms, and sports?

''Cable, OK,'' says Denis Howell, the British Labour Party's shadow home minister. ''But no to all that American muck.''

''Our television can't compete with American big business,'' worries Peter Paterno, the German Social Democratic Party's parliamentary broadcasting spokesman. ''What is going to happen to German culture?''

To Europeans, television means much more than the American concept of a commercial enterprise. It is seen as a tool of immense power, capable of shaping the nation's political and social destiny.

Nothing illustrates the European mistrust of US commercial television better than the famous question Andre Malraux asked a stunned John F. Kennedy in 1961: ''How on earth do you run a country if you don't control TV?''

More or less, Europe has translated Malraux's dictum into state control of the airwaves. In France, station heads for the country's three channels are selected more for their political sympathies than for their professionalism. News programs, overtly controlled during Mal-raux's time, remain government-biased to this day.

In the rest of the Continent, government control is less overtly political. Nevertheless, except for tiny Luxem-bourg's relaxed private system, the airwaves remain tightly monitored. Germany's three stations are run by public boards, made up of representatives from the political parties, unions, business bosses, and the church, among others. No wonder preachy documentaries dominate the schedules.

Even in Britain, with its two private networks as well as the BBC and its tradition of objective newscasting, a public board called the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) strictly limits the amount of available advertising minutes and of American programming. It also pressures the networks into producing a good diet of ''quality'' programs - something British television is justly acclaimed for doing.

''In the United States, TV executives talk about markets; we talk about audiences,'' says David Glencross, the IBA's director of television. ''We think we have a social and cultural mission.''

For a long time almost all European governments dismissed cable as an American commercial illness, incompatible with this mission.

Only in the last few years have the Europeans changed their minds. They began to appreciate cable's value for carrying electronic information in two directions, making possible, for example, home banking.

Then conservative governments came to power in Britain and West Germany. Both saw cable as a good way of creating private economic growth in the crucial high-technology sector. Even France's Socialist President, Francois Mitterrand, was intrigued enough by the high-tech angle to start wiring.

But a final reason forced the issue. By the end of the 1980s high-powered satellites will be in orbit, able to beam programs across most of Europe. Any home with a small dish aerial would be able to pick the programs up - any program, even pornography, or to many Europeans, worse yet, those direct from the US. And no government could have any say.

Cable looked like the best way to control these seditious effects. If enough homes are wired before the satellites become easily usable, then there would be little interest in buying aerial dishes. Instead satellites would have to feed into cable - and of course, cable could be restricted by the governments.

''If we don't stop the satellites, then we are going to lose all our advertising and viewers to foreign countries,'' explains Michael Schmidt-Ostbach of German national television. ''With cable at least we'll have some say in the future of our television.''

But even this is far from sure. Cable's economic future here is cloudy. So is its cultural impact. Only one thing is known: Governments soon will have far less say than they do over the present system, much too little for Mr. Schmidt-Ostbach and many other Europeans.

Tuesday: Concern about possible American dominance of the Cable systems

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