On Cable, Making Room for the Same Old Stuff

There's one variety of M&M that can be less a treat for the taste buds than a torment for the body politic.

This observation refers to the two telemedia bruisers Murdoch and Malone. Rupert Murdoch's constellation of TV properties, including the Fox Television Network, spans two-thirds of the globe. John Malone is the overlord of TCI, the largest collection of community cable systems in the nation. In this age of mortally busted antitrust, when the M&M duo gets together, you can bet it's not to render close harmony on "Bringing in the Sheaves."

It is, in fact, to advance their mutual corporate interests at the expense of the public interest. In this case, the victim is C-Span and C-Span II, the two public affairs networks that together comprise the only national civic resource left in a cable TV jungle where the dumb-down culture of corporate marketeering reigns. C-Span's congressional coverage, policy discourse, and literary interviews are among the few surviving expressions of sheer intelligence that television offers.

C-Span bumped aside

The audience of the two C-Span cable networks is overwhelming. Twenty-two million Americans watch them weekly for an average of more than six hours a week. A new survey of C-Span viewers finds that 9 out of 10 of them go to the polls.

The trouble, in a nutshell, is that cable systems must pay C-Span 6 cents per subscriber to bring the service to us. But Mr. Murdoch is willing to reverse the process and put 11 cents per head into the pockets of those same cable providers to carry his new Fox News Channel instead, a far-right rendition of the world that masquerades as an objective news service. Mr. Malone, no blazing icon of liberalism himself, is in financial trouble, the self-wounded victim of overextended ambition. His cable service, which is wired to nearly 1 in 4 cable homes, is in a severe cash crunch. TCI, with assets valued at $28 billion, is some $13 billion in debt.

Every needful tele-tycoon must come to the aid of his needy fellows. Murdoch has loaned $200 million to help Malone out of his hole. With it goes a five-year option to buy a 20 percent interest in Fox News. In gratitude, Malone is awarding scarce channel space to Fox News in many of the communities he has cabled. To make room for Fox News, Malone has kicked C-Span or C-Span II off 11 systems so far. In moves unrelated to Fox, Malone has bumped or reduced cable time for the two C-Spans in a total of 53 other TCI cities. C-Span researchers figure that 2-1/2 million subscribers have been affected since August.

Instead of dispassionate congressional coverage by the C-Spans, these hapless viewers, without being consulted, will either get to see the Rupertized version of the world, or no C-Span at all. Members of Congress have some thinking to do. They cherish being seen on C-Span, but their pro-monopoly media policies have helped derail it.

Other TCI casualties

The two C-Spans join such other casualties on TCI as Comedy Central and the WGN Superstation. They have not delivered either the ratings or profits that Malone demands.

But weren't variety, diversity, and choice the blazing promise that television by cable was supposed to offer the viewing public? Weren't we promised a multi-channel paradise for a multiplicity of tastes and needs? Jazz? Independent film? Documentaries from other parts of the world? A spicy panorama of news and views across the political horizon? Instead, commercial cable is a video nerd's nirvana of network reruns - a clone-works for the drivelized output of Hollywood's mass manufacture machine: "Bonanza" and more "Bonanza," "Murder She Wrote" and rewrote.

Insipid fare

This is what an orgy of deregulation and total indifference toward the relentless march of monopoly in mass communication have brought us, from Reagan through Clinton: the monocultural tastelessness of Murdoch and Malone, Westinghouse, Disney, and Time-Warner/Turner, too. What's at stake is American mass culture - and, thus, much of the life of our civilization.

A duly elected government is allowing a handful of media-archs to control both the programs and the pipelines that distribute them. The result is a nightmare of monopoly power over our conversation of culture and a crisis of intelligence and taste in this country. Washington's, and America's, total indifference suggests it can only get worse.

* Jerry M. Landay, a former ABC and CBS correspondent, is honors professor emeritus at the University of Illinois.

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