PEACE may be breaking out in the Middle East, health care may be undergoing the biggest revision since Florence Nightingale, but what some people really want to know is: What's with these new cable-television bills?
Carol Hartman of Cambridge, Mass., thought her monthly rates would go down. They went up 76 cents. Ken Johnson, a Des Moines retiree, is saving 70 cents, though he's not sure why.
The changes are the result of new federal rules that impact everything from cable rates to the way bills are itemized to some local programming. Though the rate changes affecting most of the nation's 57 million cable viewers took effect Sept. 1, the first bills are just now showing up in mailboxes. The changes were intended to save consumers more than $1 billion.
Not everyone, though, is planning to retire on the savings. Some see price hikes, others decreases. Then there is Adam Tsao. ``There are absolutely no changes on my bill,'' says the assistant policy analyst at SRI International, a think tank here.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wrote the formulas in response to a law passed by Congress last year mandating cable-rate relief. Where prices haven't gone down, cable companies say: We're just implementing the rules. The $22 billion cable TV industry, in fact, says the new regulations, Proustian in their density, will cost the industry $1.7 billion.
``This is not a minor thing for the industry,'' says Carol Vernon, spokeswoman for the National Cable Television Association.
While the overall impact on cable rates still isn't known, anecdotal evidence is accumulating. It shows, generally, that subscribers to low-cost basic service - usually, broadcast channels and some services like C-SPAN and the Arts & Entertainment Network - are most likely to see increases.
Those who have several televisions and get a full-service plan will likely see a reduced bill. One reason is that, up to now, more expensive service has often subsidized the lower-level tiers. The new rules level the playing field somewhat.
It isn't impossible, though, for basic-level subscribers to see reductions in their bill. Many companies offer additional outlets and equipment like remote controls. Others have stripped down basic packages, enabling subscribers to get fewer channels and pay less than they used to. Seeing your bill drop
``The government can help us,'' says Robert Brossman of Roswell, Ga. The bill of the computer-firm regional manager has dropped from $37 a month to $27. He gets the basic service plus other programming and has three TVs with remotes. ``I actually feel pretty good - the government can save us some money.''
``There is no question my rates have gone up,'' says Henry Mirsky, a Newton, Mass., social worker, who figures that he is paying about $2 more a month now. ``What disturbs me is that all these cable monopolies keep increasing the price,'' without giving additional service.
The FCC says results will come out close to their original predictions: that two-thirds to three-quarters of subscribers will see an average 10 percent decrease. ``For most subscribers, rates are going down,'' FCC commissioner Ervin Duggan said recently.
The FCC contends that only 6 percent of subscribers take the most basic service. They also note that local authorities have the power to regulate basic-tier rates, if they think the new rules are being flouted.
Some may take the agency up on that. William Squadron, commissioner of the New York City Department of Telecommunications and Energy, the agency that oversees local cable operators, calls it ``troubling'' that some people's rates are going up. He doesn't agree with formulas the FCC used to determine the new rates. Even so, he intends to monitor their impact and predicts there will be changes. Hearings on new rules
Others are looking on, too. Today, Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and finance, plans to hold hearings on the new rules. His office has received reports of widespread price hikes in his district.
Compounding confusion among some consumers have been changes in channel lineups, also a result of last year's cable-regulatory law. The statute's ``must carry'' provision requires local cable systems to carry the signal of any area TV station that asks to be included and meets certain requirements. Thus, some programming has been dropped in various markets - C-SPAN has lost about 1.5 million viewers, for instance - to accommodate local stations.