Last Thursday, city administrator Elijah Rogers sent a terse memo to key members of the city government's planning, communications and economic development offices. Rogers ordered a comprehensive report on the city's 9-year-old cable television franchise bill, an overview of cable systems nationwide and a new legislative proposal -- all in 30 days.
Cable is suddenly on the fast track in the District Building.Alan Grip, the mayor's chief spokesman, said Rogers' memo is a sign that "the mayor is going to be putting together some very suggressive activity in regard to cable television."
A cable bill will be included in the mayor's 1981 legislative package of proposals "that the mayor would hope the council would enact within the year," added Barbara Washington, director of the Office of Intergovernmental Relations.
So, nine years after its initial introduction, and seven years after nearby Arlington awarded its franchise, the D.C. government seems ready to bring the District's own cable franchise bill out of legislative hibernation.
Although the bill has reintroduced in the City Council in every session since 1971, officials say their interest has been spurred. by the city's voracious appetite for new sources of funds to offset the capricious federal payment -- an appetite which the cable companies say they can easily satisfy. With cable profits estimated in the tens of millions of dollars and the city practically assured of a percentage, officials are seeing dollar signs in the first-run movies and obscure sports events being hawked by cable enterpreneurs.
"It has not been one of (the mayor's) priorities up to now," said Grip, "but it will be in 1981, if for no other reason than because it'll be a very important source of revenue for the city." Other city officials agreed that the exigencies of the budget crisis drew their attention away from the bill during the last session, but council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), who ushered the bill through 1979-80, said she plans to reintroduce the bill in the next few months. "Money is always a concern of a city during a fiscal crunch," she said.
Actually, the renewed interest appears to be the result of a nexus between improvments in the industry, which are making cable a more attractive investment for business, and the city's need for cash. Until a few years ago, cable was only perceived as a profitable venture in sparsely populated areas where commercial television reception was weak or erratic. Because of the pervasiveness of that thinking, businessman Robert Johnson explained, the District is really not so far behind the times.
"Cable did not become viable in an urban market until just a few years ago," said Johnson, president of the D.C.-based cable network Black Entertainment Television.
"Cable is only the retransmission of over-the-air broadcasts, which makes more of those distant markets available," he said. "The additional programming is the key factor in the explosive growth of profits in cable in urban markets. The programming is transmitted via satellite, and it's programing that you can't get without cable."
Cable experts predict that companies will be able to offer 40 to 50 channels of basic service within the next few years, compared with the handful of noncable channels presently available, as well as two-way systems that will allow the viewer to send signals out.
The only cable system now operating in the District is limited to the Southwest area. Called Washington Cable Systems, the company was founded in 1974, and offers subscribers the choice of 15 channels for a fee of about $4 a month. Washington Cable operates on private property only, by agreement with individual landlords. Without a government ordinance, cable companies cannot cross any public property, such as streets and sidewalks, to install the necessary transmission equipment.
In Arlington, cable service reaches about 23 percent of the county's households, and costs subscribers from $9 to $15 a month for a choice of up to 36 channels. After 18 months of study, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted in October to delay accepting bids for another six months to allow for more discussion.
Even if D.C. were to pass a law establishing a franchise during the council session beginning in January, a cable system covering the District's estimated 260,000 housholds would not begin to operate for about another seven years. It would take two years just to study and award the franchise and another five to construct the largely underground network of wires.
Nevertheless, both business and community groups have begun to hold out their plates for a slice of the lucrative cable pie. At least two groups of local investors, District Cablevision, headed by Robert Johnson, and Capitol Cable Vision Inc., led by Carl Anderson, have organized themselves into corporations to bid on the cable franchise, even though the city has not yet determined what the requirements will be. And unlike Fairfax County, where the board of supervisors has had to cry out for community participation, D.C. interest groups have lined the corridors of the District Building to plead for amendments favoring their particular groups.
"What we have to do is make sure the ordinance builds in the guarantees of the kinds of things citizens need," said Arthur France, president of the D.C. Cable Coalition, a nonprofit community task force on cable. Also chairman of Howard University's Department of Radio, TV and Film, France testified in March at public hearings sponsored by the City Council, and strongly advocated that the cable company be required to furnish an array of free or low-cost public services.
"People don't know what cable can do for them. Poor people buy encyclopedias because they think it'll be good for their kids; people will buy good TV once they realize what it can do for them," he said. "You've got to make them understand before you give away the citizens' resources."
Among the resources the Cable Coalition wants written into the ordinance on behalf of citizens are a free children's channel, a schools' channel, three library channels, at least one government channel, a women's channel, perhaps a senior citizen's channel and a Spanish-language channel for the estimated 3 percent of the District population that is Hispanic. The Cable Coalition also wants the company to provide free equipment and studio space for community groups to produce their own shows.
All of these would be paid for as part of the basic service, that is, by the subscribers, according to the Cable Coalition plan. Perhaps not incidentally, many of those who testified at the public hearings in March on behalf of specialized channels were involved in TV production.
The coalition also spoke to two ongoing debates on whether to provide cable to low-income areas, and whether to provide the widest range of services if the added costs make the system more expensive to all subscribers. The coalition wants cable available to the whole city, but they aren't sure who should pay.
"People were talking about three channels for the library, one for the government, one for this, and I could just see the dollars ticking away," said Percy Klein, who co-owns Southwest's Washington Cable with his wife Susan. Klein estimated that a citywide cable network in densely populated D.C. would cost about $150,000 per mile to connect, for a total cost of about $100 million. Klein also estimated that the basic charge would have to be about $16 a month.
Many potential operators, however, dismiss Klein's concerns about the cost as undue conservatism, and feel that the profits would more than compensate for demands for subsidized channels and equipment. David Korte, a vice president of a nonprofit advisory group called Cable Television Information Service, estimated that a D.C.-wide cable franchise could expect to gross abot $20 million yearly after five to eight years in operation.
Cable bill watchers in general praise the D.C. bill for its evenhanded protection of both business and community interests, but they warn that the ordinance suffers from a lack of expert advice. The bill was prepared within the council without outside assistance except for comments solicited from the Federal Communications Commission three years ago.
Korte said advice from an independent consultant on a cable system for a city the size of Washington would cost between $40,000 and $50,000.
Some businessmen have complained that the bill fails to provide adequate protection against influence peddling in the awarding of the contractand is amibiguous on the rights of private landlords and the cable company when the citywide system goes under construction. At the March hearings, Robert Johnson stressed his concern for protection against the so-called rent-a-citizen problem, in which a company earns a franchise on the strength of politically influential investors who don't actually provide any of the investment capital.
Such thorny problems will have to be resolved in the council before the bill can become law. At this point, complications notwithstanding, neither politicos nor investors nor activists doubt that D.C. cable is on its way, in a hurry. "It's a hot political potato and everyone wants a piece of the action," said Grip in uncharacteristically blunt terms. "(Officials) are thinking cable.They agree on one thing: It's the wave of the future."