Cable's menu

One of the measures cleared by Congress this session - and expected to be signed into law by President Reagan - imposes limits on the ability of local communities to control rates charged by cable television companies.

The economics of the legislation may well make sense. Cable franchise operators lay out large expenditures to put a cable system in place. After doing so they often face arbitrary decisions - sometimes heavily political - from local officials and local business interests eager to acquire the franchise in a subsequent licensing hearing. The measure just enacted ends local controls over cable rates after two years. It sets up a somewhat uniform process for licensing renewals. It also calls for equal employment opportunities for minorities and women.

All that appears reasonable. But cable television operators would seem remiss in resting on their laurels after winning this legislation. Studies suggest that much of the early promise of cable television is far from being realized. In some cases, programs are of downright dubious taste - particularly late-evening programs. Even in prime-time hours, when children watch cable, basic cable services consist heavily of replays of repeats - old television shows and old movies. Allowing for a rare exception now and then, the menu on cable television seems not much different from the stuff of conventional television - except, of course, that it is more expensive to watch. Now needed is some creative programming from cable franchise holders. That means spotlighting local communities. School affairs. Neighborhoods. Ethnic or other offbeat programs considered too specialized for conventional TV. There is no reason why cable TV should not set a high standard for broadcasting in general.

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