Cable industry needs a better attitude


June 22, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

"All we need is a little help . . . you know, shoot Hundt! Don't let him do more damage."

--John Malone

If you want to understand why the cable television industry is in the regulatory doghouse, catch the interview of Tele-Communications Inc. President John Malone's interview in Wired magazine's July issue -- the one where he suggests shooting Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt.

It's a wonderful interview. Mr. Malone comes across as outspoken, intelligent, humorous and totally contemptuous of just about anyone and anything except John Malone.

In the world according to John Malone, the phone companies are timid and conniving, the Congress is out for blood and regulators are blockheads. TCI, on the other hand, is a politically naive innocent with a single representative in Washington to battle the hordes of phone company lobbyists.

If Mr. Malone's attitude were an aberration, the cable industry would probably still be reaping the profits of its unregulated monopolies. But they're not. Contempt toward politicians and regulators is endemic among cable executives.

As American citizens, they have a perfect right to feel that way. The problem is they keep showing it. That's bad business.

By contrast, the telephone industry oozes respect in its dealings with legislators and regulators. It's not that they love being regulated, but after decades of dealing with the FCC and state public utility agencies, they've learned an adversarial posture doesn't pay.

The cowboy capitalists of the cable industry are slow to catch on. Many of them seem to believe the 1992 Cable Act, which stuffed the cable genie back into the regulatory lamp, sprang full-blown from the malevolent minds of business-hating congressmen.

There's little doubt that Congress had it in for cable in 1992. Two years earlier some powerful committee chairmen thought they had an agreement on a far less stringent measure, but some of the largest companies welshed on the deal and got the bill scuttled. They won that battle but lost the war in 1992 when a bipartisan supermajority overturned President George Bush's veto of the cable reregulation bill.

What the industry seems to block out of its collective consciousness is the popular uprising against poor service and high rates that inspired the regulation in the first place. Roy Neel, president of the archrival United States Telephone Association, was right on target when he told Consumer Information Appliance newsletter that "cable did it to itself."

In fact, the 1992 Cable Act is about as clunky and cumbersome a piece of legislation as has ever been written. If a similar law were imposed on almost any other business, it would be easy to work up sympathy for its plight.

But, hey, this is cable. How do cable executives try to win the hearts and minds of public-spirited citizens? In many cases, according to the New York Times, they've taken away their C-SPAN. No wonder Bell Atlantic senses an opportunity.

Fortunately for the industry, there are signs that some cable companies are beginning to get it. Instead of moaning about the FCC forcing them to roll back their rates, they are sending out cheery letters telling subscribers how delighted they are to cut their prices.

1% That's the way you play the game.

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