WASHINGTON -- The days and nights of free Oprah and Cosby Show could be numbered for cable television viewers if Congress passes
a measure allowing broadcasters to charge cable operators for their programming.
The cable industry warns that the provision, part of a bill expected to be brought to the Senate floor this month, could raise subscribers' rates by as much as $5 per month.
Any proposal to allow cable systems to be charged for receiving network or local broadcast programming "would hit the consumer right in the wallet and give him nothing in return," James P. Mooney, president of the National Cable Television Association, told a House subcommittee last month.
Currently, cable operators can re-transmit broadcasters' signals without paying or asking for permission.
The proposal before Congress, introduced by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, would allow broadcasters to retain control over their signals by using one of two methods. Cable systems could be required to negotiate for the right to carry a broadcaster's signal, or television stations could choose "must carry" status, forcing the cable system to carry their programs. Broadcasters choosing "must carry" status would receive no compensation.
"Cable has built its business on the backs of broadcasters," said Lynn McReynolds, spokeswoman for the National Broadcasters Association. "The heart of this provision is to establish a right for broadcasters to control how their medium is being used."
Ms. McReynolds said predictions that subscribers might have to pay an additional $5 per month amounted to "scare tactics" by the cable industry. She also said that the controversial provision is part of a re-regulation bill designed to hold down rising cable rates.
Re-regulation might lower cable rates, but only at the cost of "choking-off" investment in new programming and technology, responded Carol Vernon, spokeswoman for the National Cable Television Association. As a result, cable quality would decline, she said.
Neither the "must-carry" nor the re-transmission consent concepts is acceptable to the cable industry, she said. "There is limited channel capacity," Ms. Vernon said. "Must-carry [status] would force the cable operators to pick and choose among the other programs. And the re-transmission debate turns free television into a consumer issue."
The cable bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., and Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., was approved 16-3 by the Senate Commerce Committee.