The battle now reaching a climax in Congress over re-regulating the cable television industry is a classic example of a bill intended to aid consumers that has almost been submerged by interest groups fighting each other for competitive advantages.
The bill started as a consumer protection measure. Congress lifted controls on cable TV operations in 1984. Charges promptly skyrocketed in many areas. Often service quality dipped almost as quickly. The cable TV operators gained a reputation for concentrating on expansion and amalgamation but neglecting their captive audiences. The bill would restore price controls on cable TV and impose quality standards for service. It would also ease the way for competitors in the 97 percent of areas that are saddled with monopoly franchises.
So far so good. Even some in the cable TV industry could live with that. But the bill, passed Thursday in the House of Representatives and due soon for a final vote in the Senate, goes farther. It would force the cable systems to negotiate with the over-the-air broadcasters for the right to carry their signals on their systems. Now the cable systems are required to carry local broadcasts but need not pay for them. The bill would also force the cable companies to sell programming that it has developed for its own use to potential competitors.
These latter two provisions have the cable industry howling. It has howled so loudly and, in some cases, so irresponsibly that it has damaged its own case. The cable industry contends the new regulations would increase customers' bills by perhaps $4 a month. No one knows what, if anything, cable systems would have to pay broadcasters for the rights to carry their signals. Maybe nothing. The broadcasters and cable systems need each other: Cable would be hard to sell without network and local over-air programming, and broadcasters need to assure their advertisers the programs they pay for are reaching the whole market.
With House passage, the battle shifts to the Senate. The cable industry is lobbying furiously to get enough Senate votes to sustain a promised veto by President Bush. It's getting help from Hollywood, where movie producers have decided that if cable must pay for over-air material, they should get a cut for the programs they produced, too.
While the bill's sponsors still point to its protection for consumers as the measure's main features, it has in fact been encrusted with provisions that could mean billions of dollars to broadcasters and Hollywood producers. If the Senate fails to muster a veto-proof majority, the bill's original supporters ought to start all over next year, keeping the new proposal strictly focused on the consumer's interests.