A key District of Columbia cable television task force, taking exception to proposals for systems in the Washington suburbs, has recommended that a semipublic corporation be created to develop a cable operation here and that the city keep substantially more control over it than in other jurisdictions.
Under the task force's proposal, which still has to be approved by Mayor Marion Barry and the City Council, the system would be jointly owned by the city and private interests, not just a private cable television company as is the case in Arlington, Alexandria and communities throughout the country.
Elsewhere, private ownership has often resulted in broken promises. Cable firms have sometimes not provided as many channels as they said they would, charged higher than expected fees or been too slow in installing their systems.
The task force voiced the hope that the District, which potentially has one of the most lucrative cable markets in the region, may be able to avoid some of these pitfalls with creation of the corporation.
Establishment of such a corporation, the task force said, would represent a balance between the desire of the city government to maintain control over the burgeoning cable television industry, while recognizing the economic reality that the private sector is better equipped financially to develop and operate cable systems.
The task force, composed of officials from the city's offices of Planning and Development, Communications, and Business and Economic Development, made its recommendations public at hearings yesterday before the City Council's Public Service and Consumer Affairs Committee.
The committee is currently reviewing cable television legislation that would allow the city to award a franchise to one or more private firms to develop cable here, the traditional route followed by jurisdictions elswhere. So far, the firm competing most vigorously for the city's cable contract is the newly created District Cablevision Inc. It is headed by Black Entertainment Television President Robert L. Johnson and includes such figures as David Abramson, Barry's 1978 campaign media adviser, and a prominent local minister, the Rev. A. Knighton Stantley.
The task force made its recommendation for a combination public-private ownership about two weeks ago after an intensive 60-day study, although Barry and City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers have yet to voice their opinions on the panel's suggestions.
The crucial question of cable television ownership -- public, private or a combination of both -- has emerged as the first issue in what is likely to be a series of high-stakes debates over the future development of the industry in the nation's capital.
Under the proposed public-private approach, the city could crete a new development corporation that might be a cross between the federally created Communications Satellite Corp., which sells stock on the open market, and the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp., a quasi-public panel that controls the redeveopment along Pennsylvania Avenue.
According to task force chjairman Lawrence P. Schumake III, who is the executive director of the D.C. Office of Business and Economic Development, the city's cable corporation would be chartered to develop a system using guidelines specified by the City Council. The council would decide, among other things, how many channels would be devoted to public service and how to award access to channels.
Under the proposed public-private arrangement, the mayor would appoint the board of directors to the corporation, which would then go to the private marketplace to finance the construction of Washington's cable system, now estimated to cost at least $60 million. If the council were to approve some form of cable operation this year, cable television experts estimate that it would take at least another four years before D.C. residents could start watching it.
Advocates of the combination ownership approach said yesterday that the proposed corporation would give the city a larger share of the profits, while also maintaining city control over the profitable spinoffs of cable development -- such as the construction contracts for building the system and the growth of cable television production companies and technical supply firms.
However, advocates of the strictly private approach said that the private franchise arrangement guarantees financial stability and would leave the cost of the system to the marketplace. "When there are private developers willing to take the risk," said Cablevision's president Johnson, "there is no reason for government to get into it. Also, from a First Amendment standpoint, I have problems with the government being in the telecommunications business."
The initial cost of establishing a cable system has kept many other cities from adopting the municipal ownership approach. All of the Washington suburban jurisdictions have opted to award franchises to private firms.