In the first major effort to re-regulate cable television, a Senate committee yesterday approved a bill that would restore some government control over the prices that cable operators can charge customers.
The bill, which cleared the Senate Commerce Committee on an 18 to 1 vote, would give local officials the authority to regulate the price of the most basic cable TV service.
It also would empower the Federal Communications Commission to roll back rates deemed "significantly excessive" for such programming as Cable News Network and ESPN.
Cable television rates have risen steadily since 1987, when operators were permitted to set their own prices under the Cable Act of 1984.
Responding to consumer complaints about rising prices and poor service, legislators have been working for nearly two years to fashion a law that would rein in what some lawmakers have called "an unregulated monopoly."
Despite its passage yesterday, the Senate measure angered the cable industry's chief lobbying group, the National Cable Television Association, which earlier this week said that it would not stand in the way of the legislation.
The group said it now opposes the bill, a defection that shatters the fragile coalition of special interests behind it and muddies its chances for passage before the full Senate.
Among other provisions, the cable industry wanted assurances that cable operators could buy programs on an exclusive basis, and would not be required to share these programs with such competitors as direct-broadcast satellite systems.
But the bill passed yesterday, called the Cable Television Consumer Protection Act, carries no such assurance.
"They didn't give us the deal they said they would," said NCTA chief James Mooney, referring to discussions between the cable industry and committee staff members earlier this week.
A Senate source said, however, that the cable industry decided to oppose the bill at the 11th hour because it was unable to wrest last-minute concessions from the committee.
The bill was approved quickly yesterday after the committee's leadership persuaded Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) to withdraw an amendment that would have allowed telephone companies to enter the cable business, which is currently prohibited under the 1984 Cable Act.
In return for dropping the amendment, Burns received assurances from the committee's chairman, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), that Burns's proposal would be heard by the committee as a separate measure before the summer recess.
Several senators said the amendment would have killed the bill's chances of passing in the full Senate.
As passed, the Senate bill would not place any limits on the rates that cable operators could charge for such premium services as HBO and pay-per-view events such as big rock concerts and boxing matches.
But it would give the FCC the authority to place limits on the total share of the market that one company can hold.
Gene Kimmelman, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America, called the bill an improvement over the 1984 Cable Act, but said it still provided "too much leeway for unreasonable rate increases. This is an incremental improvement."
He said consumers probably would not see rates fall for anything other than cable delivery of local broadcast stations.
In the House, meanwhile, a bill similar to the Senate proposal will be put to a vote later this month.