Put the Tethers Back on Cable TV

ONLY in America do citizens enjoy virtually universal access to top-quality television programming, free of charge, every day of the year. Only in America can many citizens choose additional specialized programming and uncut movies available through cable television. Yet, only in America has the government jeopardized the future of the world's finest system of free, over-the-air broadcasting by granting monopolies to cable companies, by failing to regulate the growth of the cable industry, and by destroying the competitive balance between cable and free broadcasting.

Today, local TV stations are subject to the whims of cable systems, which dictate how and when subscribers receive television signals from free television stations. Because local cable systems face no real competition from other cable systems or over-the-air broadcasters, consumers are at their mercy. Lack of competition has also resulted in increasing subscription rates.

It is time for Congress to restore a fair competitive balance to the local marketplace, and ensure that free, community-based broadcast television is available to the public in the next century. It is time for Congress to re-regulate the cable industry.

In 1934, Congress created our free over-the-air broadcasting system in which local stations are licensed to serve the needs and interests of their communities. This broadcasting system has become the envy of the world.

During the '50s and '60s, cable television was introduced to improve reception in rural areas. Later cable developed its own programming to supplement the free over-the-air signals it retransmits.

In 1984, when Congress passed the Cable Communications Policy Act, cable characterized itself as a struggling infant industry. That act, which in essence removed all regulatory oversight, has become the communications equivalent of anabolic steroids.

Today, cable television operators enjoy an unregulated monopoly. Amazingly, only 32 of more than 8,000 cable systems have any direct competition, and the struggling ``infant'' of 1984 is now a $14 billion industry whose systems reach nearly 80 million homes.

Cable viewers used to be protected by ``must carry'' rules, which guaranteed that virtually all local programming would be carried on cable systems. Now, however, cable has unrestricted discretion over what local stations it carries and where those stations will be placed in the lineup. Cable even has a compulsory license to retransmit broadcasters' local signals without consent and without payment.

Broadcasters are fiercely competitive. In local markets, usually four or more stations compete for advertising dollars and strive to meet the demands placed upon them by consumers, Congress, and the Federal Communications Commission. The 1984 Cable Act, however, has had the effect of placing a thumb on cable's side of the competitive scale.

Local television stations have asked Congress to lift the thumb that has caused the imbalance, and return free over-the-air broadcasters to a competitive marketplace. This rebalancing would result in fair competition and would benefit the American television viewer.

American viewers have always enjoyed a wide variety of sports programming free of charge. Soon, most New York Yankee games, now broadcast free, will be available only on cable. Other sports in other cities may suffer the same fate. Deregulation of cable rates and this trend of siphoning sports programming from free TV to pay TV raises some questions.

Are rates rising because cable needs to cover the high cost of sports programs once available to consumers free of charge? Or are sports programs moving from free TV because cable can up the bidding ante, knowing its rates are not regulated?

Right now cable television is the ultimate gatekeeper. Highly integrated cable monopolies have every incentive to favor their own programming at the expense of free broadcasters. American viewers are entitled to pay for programming if they choose to, but they should also have the option of a healthy, free broadcasting system.

Cable TV is not the same industry Congress addressed only five years ago. Congress must act now to begin to develop regulations that will fairly govern tomorrow's viewing marketplace.

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