At first blush, it would certainly seem that Fairfax County is engaging in some unnecessary foot-dragging on its way to awarding a franchise for a countywide cable television system.
One could argue, as Board of Supervisors Chairman John F. Herrity has, that 18 months is long enough to study anything. Another six months of study before the board even begins asking for proposals, which the supervisors narrowly approved after an acrimonious debate this week, might seem excessive. It certainly did to Herrity, who called the move "paralysis by analysis."
In this case, however, the easy answer does not seem to be the best one. Seldom, if ever, has the Board of Supervisors faced a question that involves more money -- hundreds of millions of dollars in subscriber fees over the next 20 years.
Seldom has it been asked to make a decision that has involved so many complex technological, ethical and economic questions. Seldom has it faced an issue that so directly affects its constituents.
And seldom has it faced so large a political hot potato without the benefit of advice from the state or federal governments. Even the county's usually vocal citizens are silent on the particulars of the cable television decision. So far, only a handful have offered their views. From the rest, the cry is universal: "Give us first-run movies and lots of sports -- fast."
It's enough to make even the most stoic of supervisors break out in a cold sweat.
Complicating matters still further is the question of so-called "rent-a-citizens" -- prominent countains who received free stock from competing cable companies, presumably in exchange for their power to influence local leaders. Fairfax officials say the presence of such people on the rolls of the 22 companies competing for the Fairfax franchise is an insult, but, they ask, what can they do?
"You never know who these people are," one official laments. "They might turn out to be your next-door neighbor or your business partner or your brother-in-law. You just don't know."
Without federal or state assistance, local governments like Fairfax are finding themselves at a distinct disadvantage when asked to play ball with communications giants who can afford to invest up to $1 million in the competition for major television markets.
In Fairfax, the county's own cable team is led by an administrator who has never overseen the awarding of a cable franchise. The lawyer representing the county's cable interests last worked on communications law as a student on a college radio station.
Fairfax leaders are aware, of course, that severe problems could result from even the slightest misstep. Just down the road, in tiny Leesburg, town officials recently tried to ram through a cable franchise contract in record time. Justice Department officials are now investigating the issue for alleged violations of federal anti-trust laws.
Across the country, grand-jury investigations over allegedly improper franchising procedures are beginning to crop up, and bitter lawsuits by disgruntled cable companies are becoming commonplace.
All of this seems to present a good reason for cheering at the board's 5-4 decision this week, at the nudging of Supervisor Martha V. Pennino, to extend the county's deliberations and bring a citizen advisory group -- the county's Consumer Protection Commission -- into the picture.
Granted, this means there will be no Home Box Office on county television sets for a little while longer. But Pennino's point is well-taken when she says citizen involvement is needed in the cable decision. Three previous attempts to name a cable citizen-advisory committee have been vetoed by the board.
Pennino is right, too, when she says the supervisors need more information on available cable technology and its potential impact on county residents. While many of the supervisors have been viewing cable simply as an entertainment medium, recent technological advances offer the possibility that cable television could be the predominant two-way communications medium by the turn of the century -- at enormous financial gain to owners.
Meantime, a dazzling array of cable services are being promoted -- cable banking, shopping, burglar alarms and television sets with more than 100 channels -- but the county has no idea if the services are worth the cost or if county residents even want them.
Pennino is wise to question such promises, because local governments around the country have awarded franchises based on such "pie in the sky" promises and later found, to their dismay, that the promises had a way of vanishing into thin air.
According to the nonprofit Cable Television Information Center, which advises localities on cable-franchising questions, it is not unusual for cable companies to promise the impossible, only to return several years later and renegotiate their contracts after the tides of electoral politics have turned.
It would also be wise for the newly commissioned cable study to examine innovative solutions to the "rent-a-citizen" problem.Fairfax City recently adopted an ordinance favoring applicants whose shareholders have paid market price for their shares.
Other localities have claimed success by building, and owning, their own cable systems, thereby eliminating the profit-making middleman. They say this approach allows them to offer cable services at lower costs, and to use cable revenues to offset expenses and thus reduce property taxes.
While neither of these alternatives may be the ultimate solution for Fairfax County, they are examples of creative approaches to a difficult problem. The involvement of the Fairfax Consumer Protection Commission could well offer a forum for such creative thinking.
There is no need for Fairfax to race headlong into a cable minefield just because John Q. Public wants to watch "Saturday Night Fever" at home.