Over the strong objections of local government officials, the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday overwhelmingly approved legislation significantly curbing the powers of cities and counties to regulate local cable television systems.
By a 13-3 vote, the committee adopted legislation that for the first time would give the Federal Communications Commission exclusive jurisdiction over the cable television industy.
The measure was passed after less than an hour of debate, with no more than six of the 17 committee members present at any one time.
Local governments no longer would be permitted to specify the number of channels and types of services cable systems must offer in their areas. At the same time, they no longer will be able to regulate the price of any pay television service, such as Home Box Office. What's more, cities would have to automatically renew a cable franchise if the operator had met the terms of the franchise agreement--even though a competing company promised better service at lower costs.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), represented a significant victory for the cable industry, which has long argued that it has been overregulated by municipal governments.
With regulatory oversight shifted from the cities to the federal government, the industry says it would have a better chance to compete against other segments of the broadcasting industry, including the newly developing technologies such as direct-broadcast satellite service that are not regulated by local governments.
"This will begin to put us on a competitive regulatory parity with new services and provide a uniform set of rules that are now catch-as-catch can," said Thomas E. Wheeler, president of the National Cable Television Association Inc.
Local government officials denounced the measure as anti-consumer. The legislation "is a shocking affront to local governments and to consumers throughout the country," said Alan Beals, executive director of the National League of Cities. "It tells city officials that they must ignore the interests and needs of their community which they are elected to represent and to acquiesce instead to the privileges and exemptions handed over to the cable industry in this bill."
With the committee's approval coming so late in the legislative session, the chances for this bill's passage are not bright--the House has not even begun considering such a measure.
However, fearful that the measure could be attached to other legislation and approved by Congress, local governments are lobbying hard against it.
They failed yesterday to win committee support for a key amendment to the bill. By a 7-4 vote, the committee refused to delete the section of the bill that requires cities to renew automatically an operator's franchise. Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) offered the amendment, arguing that the quality of service would be reduced if the threat of competition were removed. However, Goldwater argued that it would be unfair to the company that initially won the franchise and then spent millions of dollars in setting up the system to subject it to lengthy hearings at which it might lose its franchise.
By an 11-4 vote, the committee also rejected an amendment by Sen. Howard M. Cannon (D-Nev.) and Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) that would have completely deregulated the cable industry after five years.