C-SPAN dropped in 95 cities pulls plug on Congress

September 07, 1994|By Bob Dart | Bob Dart,Cox News Service

In what must be the most unintended of consequences, Congress has passed a law that is cutting television contact between many members and their constituents.

In the 15 months since new federal cable regulations went into effect, C-SPAN's live coverage of Congress has been cut off or cut back by cable companies in 95 cities.

Viewers in 4 million households across the country have been affected, including cable subscribers in Atlanta, Miami and Austin, Texas, said Brian Lamb, C-SPAN's founder and chief executive officer.

He blamed the viewer losses on the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, which Congress enacted over the veto of then-President Bush. The law set up complex new rules on what every cable system must carry.

To make room for these "must-carry" stations, said Mr. Lamb, many cable systems have cut back or eliminated C-SPAN, which carries proceedings of the House of Representatives, or C-SPAN2, which shows all Senate floor action.

Launched 15 years ago, C-SPAN (for Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network) has been funded from the start by the cable TV industry. Although Congress controls the cameras in the House and Senate, there is no taxpayer funding for the network, which reaches about 60 million TV households. C-SPAN2 began covering the Senate in 1987 and can be seen in about 30 million TV households.

Since C-SPAN viewers tend to be political activists, the Federal Communications Commission has heard from many in cable markets where the congressional network was taken off the air. In its form letter response, the FCC points out "the decision to carry C-SPAN on a given system rests with the local cable company."

The new law hasn't been all bad for TV viewers. An FCC survey this summer showed cable rates for subscribers in the 25 largest cities have dropped an average of 16 percent since the law went into effect.

Since the cable operators collectively fund C-SPAN, the decision not to carry the congressional network is painful, said Rich D'Amato, a spokesman for the National Cable Television Association.

However, the typical cable company has only 40 to 45 channels available and the new law has added in six to 13 new "must carry" stations, he said. "They're being squeezed and have to take something off the air."

Since the new law has also limited revenues for the cable operators, they sometimes choose to carry more profitable channels rather than the non-profit C-SPAN, he explained.

In some communities, including the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va., irate viewers have prodded their local cable systems into restoring C-SPAN.

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