CABLE TELEVISION has become the narcotic of the late 20th century.
It started innocently enough. When cable entered most living rooms in the last 20 years, it was cost-effective, delivered pictures so clear that no configuration of rabbit ears could compare and brought more news, sports and music videos. Like color television years earlier, we had to have it.
Through our local governments, we granted monopoly franchises to winning bidders of some fierce competitions, allowing them to connect our homes to the universe of channels that forever erased the initials "VHF" and "UHF" from our vocabularies.
It seemed safe enough. Government assured that publicly approved private entities would never be allowed to exploit their solitary positions in the market. They would be closely regulated, like utilities. Implicitly, we were promised reasonable controls to temper any avaricious impulses to boost profits through unnecessary rate increases.
But when I open my cable television bill every month, I get the distinct impression that these promises were broken. Cable rates are rising three times faster than inflation in some areas of the country, absorbing a larger share of family budgets.
Deregulation in the 1980s spurred cable providers to raise their prices substantially, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996, delivering the opposite of what it promised, unleased another torrent. The costs have become so exorbitant that two consumer groups asked the federal government to impose a rate freeze and to devise a new method for determining increases. The pinch is felt across the nation and at home.
In 1987, Howard residents paid $13.95 a month for basic cable.
Soon, Comcast Cablevision customers will have to pay $32.70 a month for basic service, with the most recent increase of 10 percent. The dollar-a-day cost grows for subscribers of premium channels, including HBO, Showtime and even Turner Classic Movies.
We should have known this faster-than-inflation rise would come after deregulation. A decade ago, the federal government removed authority from county and city councils, which might have been willing to hold the line on increases, and transferred power to the Federal Communications Commission, a toothless pussycat in the hands of Big Cable.
"The cable industry feels utterly unconstrained by the FCC," Gene Kimmelman, co-director of the Washington office of the nonprofit Consumers Union, complained in a recent New York Times article.
Cable providers blame some of the increase on higher costs they are charged by programmers like CNN. But with mergermania upon us, that excuse will vanish.
Consumer groups note that mergers between providers and networks have resulted in bulkier corporations like TCI and Time Warner that control programming and cable services. The danger, consumer groups warn, is that companies formed from these vertical mergers can inflate the costs of their programming services and charge higher prices to consumers through their cable systems.
Customers already pay twice for most cable channels. They pay once when writing checks for cable services and again when viewing revenue-producing commercials. Conversely, programmers have two ways of making money through cable -- by charging operators to carry their channels and by selling ads.
Meanwhile, cable operators and programmers owned separately have consumers right where they want them -- hooked. Their menus have expanded from CNN, ESPN and MTV to include specialized channels devoted to golf, game shows, food, religion, home and garden and more.
To practically everyone, and for different reasons, there is a considerable amount of good programming -- and plenty of garbage. I can't understand my wife's fascination with Home and Garden Television. She sees no reason for "Sportscenter's" existence.
We consumers gripe about rising rates, but few of us are willing to take any action. Sure, phones at the county's cable administration office have been ringing off the hooks lately. Try calling as I did last week and you might not get through. Instead, you're bound to get a recorded message from a clipped voice advising you to call Comcast or Mid-Atlantic Cable about billing questions.
Another QVC channel?
But what happens after you reach Comcast or Mid-Atlantic and they respond by saying the higher costs pay for investments such as the installation of fiber optic lines that bring you a second QVC channel? How many cable television consumers can take the next step of protest?
Is anyone so outraged that they are driven to the state of Peter Finch's classic "Network" character? Will consumers en masse shout, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more," and rip cable cords from their walls in unison?
More than likely, our anger will drive us to simply cancel the premium channels -- for a while. We'll convince ourselves that we've cut our cable bill -- until the next great deal for HBO, HBO2 and HBO3 comes along.
Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.
Pub Date: 11/09/97