C-Span becoming a victim of cable competition law

June 21, 1994|By Elizabeth Kolbert | Elizabeth Kolbert,New York Times News Service

C-Span, the television channel lawmakers love the most, has become an unintended victim of the cable law passed by Congress two years ago to increase competition and lower rates.

In the nine months since key provisions of the law took effect, C-Span and its sister channel, C-Span 2, have been cut back on cable systems serving more than 4 million households, and in some cases dropped altogether. In some instances, the cuts have prompted protests from viewers accustomed to watching the antics of the federal government live and unedited.

The cable law forced many cable systems to add local broadcast channels they had not been carrying, and it was anticipated that some systems would have to drop other channels to make room for them.

What is surprising, though, is the extent to which C-Span, the cable industry's contribution to public service, seems to have borne the brunt of the cuts.

"We've been impacted in this process more than anyone else," says Brian Lamb, chairman and chief executive of C-Span. In the last month alone, he says, more than 1 million subscribers have lost all or part of C-Span's daily service as local cable operators make room for a new Fox channel called FX.

Cable system operators who have dropped or reduced C-Span say the public-affairs channel was an obvious choice because it has a limited constituency.

The channel offers uninterrupted coverage of congressional debates, government hearings and Washington news conferences, as well as such events as the White House dinner for the emperor of Japan.

But congressional officials and cable industry analysts say C-Span has been hit hardest by the cuts because operators can make more money with channels offering "Fantasy Island" reruns or home-shopping items.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who was the chief architect of the cable law, says: "I think in many instances we will find these operators have multiple pay-per-view channels they have determined are more important than C-Span. Many of them have multiple home shopping channels."

Mr. Markey went on to suggest that Mr. Lamb was crying wolf. He notes that the number of cable subscribers who have completely lost both C-Span and C-Span 2 is far fewer than 4 million; he estimates it at a few hundred thousand.

C-Span is an independent nonprofit venture financed by fees from cable systems; its board is made up of executives from many of the nation's largest cable companies.

Its first channel, which offers House debates live, is available to roughly 60 million households, so that even with the cutbacks, it has one of the largest potential audiences in cable.

C-Span 2, which covers Senate debates live, is available to about 34 million households. Both channels also offer call-in shows and panel discussions and have already begun looking at the 1996 presidential race.

Under federal law, cable operators have no clear-cut public service obligations. Still, cable operators have used their support of C-Span to win points with the public and Congress.

Rich D'Amato, senior director of public affairs for the National Cable Television Association, calls the dropping of the public affairs channel "a real concern for the cable industry, because we consider C-Span to be one of our proudest achievements."

Critics of the industry argue that if cable companies really care about C-Span and public service, they should show it by cutting other channels. There is no measure of how many people watch C-Span, because the channel is not included in Nielsen ratings. But those who watch it tend to be avid viewers, it seems. In many communities where C-Span has been dropped, viewers have not accepted the news quietly; instead, they have started more civic-minded versions of the "I want my MTV" campaign.

In Carroll, Iowa, where the local cable system, owned by Tele-Communications Inc., decided to drop C-Span to make way for FX, a retired couple, Letta and Bill Meinen, started a lobbying effort to bring it back. They took out an ad in the local paper urging townspeople to write the cable company. So far, though, there is no sign of C-Span's return.

"We watched it a lot," Mrs. Meinen says. "We feel kind of lost."

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