Bills paid by cable television subscribers around the country rose by almost 7 percent in the six months after pricing was deregulated last December under a federal law, according to a survey released yesterday by the National Cable Television Association.
Many Washington area cable companies exceeded the average increase, a check by The Washington Post found. Rates for basic service -- which does not include so-called premium programs such as Showtime -- rose at all of the suburban cable systems, with increases most commonly ranging from 14 to 16 percent. Nationally, the increase for basic service averaged 10.6 percent.
Nationally, the percentage of subscribers in areas that have cable service held steady at about 57 percent. "The basic rate increases that were implemented this year have been very well accepted by cable customers," said Cynthia Brumfield, the association's vice president for research and policy analysis. Disconnection rates have also declined slightly.
Though basic rates have increased, the association said, operators are offering a bit more in their basic service packages.
Before deregulation, the industry contended that prices for so-called "basic" package of channels offered to subscribers had been kept artificially low by regulation. Cable operators made up for that in part, the industry says, by raising prices on their unregulated "premium" services, channels like Home Box Office and Showtime. Subscribers must pay extra for those, above the rate for the basic service.
The association's survey found that with most systems now deregulated, overall basic revenue per subscriber has risen 11.2 percent, while revenue from premium service has fallen by 2.3 percent. As premium rates have fallen, subscriptions to those services have increased, it said.
The average cable subscriber's total bill works out to be 6.7 percent higher, the survey found.
The survey was tabulated by the accounting firm Arthur Andersen & Co. Questionnaires were mailed to 2,577 operators, of which 598 responded, accounting for about 8 percent of the country's systems and 16 percent of the subscribing households. The association did not attempt to verify the data.
Locally, Media General Cable of Fairfax Inc. -- which has 90 active channels, the most of any cable system in the country -- raised the rate for its "limited service" of 43 active channels from $3.07 to $4.95. The second, or enhanced, tier, which used to cost $9.36, and the third tier, which used to cost $11.36, were combined into a "full service" level for $12.95. Amalgamation of tiers has been a common occurrence the survey found. On Jan. 1, the limited service will be raised to $5.95 and the full service to $15.95.
Jones Intercable of Alexandria raised its basic rate from $11 to $12.95 last February, but also added eight channels to its basic service. It plans to raise the basic rate to $14.95 next February. Arlington County's Metrocable raised its regular rate from $14.20 to $15.25.
Prime Cable of Maryland, which is seen in northern Prince George's County, raised its rates from $11.95 to $13.95, while adding two channels. Metrovision of PG Inc., which serves southern Prince George's County, upped its rates from $11.95 to $12.95 last March, and added five channels to the basic service.
Although the survey found that premium service prices fell in many places, most area systems say their premium rates have not changed.