The District government has waited years to bring the city a cable television system, while its officials have pondered ways to wring the greatest social and economic benefits from the new technology.
The latest development in the cable saga was the submission last week of a final report by Mayor Marion Barry's task force. The group wrote an excruciatingly careful document, but the bottom line was that the city should conduct certain additional studies before taking any concrete action.
Significantly, the task force recommended that the city investigate alternatives to the conventional franchising arrangements adopted by most other cities -- alternatives that could put the city into the cable business.
One of the crucial issues underlying the discussion, a perennial topic with the Barry administration, is how to write rules for cable so that blacks get tangible economic benefits
"You can be sure that all of the discussions . . . look at ways of involving minorities," said Courtland Cox, who heads the city's Minority Business Opportunities Commission and was a member of the mayor's cable task force.
There are those who argue the simplest way to ensure minority participation is to grant a franchise to a minority-controlled group. It is no coincidence that one of the chief proponents of this approach is Bob Johnson, head of Black Entertainment Television, a local firm that sells black entertainment programs to cable TV systems. Johnson also is president of District Cablevision, a minority-controlled cable group. a
Other officials, however, believe that cable television can be made a vehicle for economic development of the inner city, and that the way to reach this goal is to tie cable to the city's elected government, either through a quasi-public development corporation or through a joint venture between the city and a large cable operator.
Under one task force model, the development corporation would build the system, develop the programming and eventually sell most of the system to local entrepreneurs. Presumably, there would be controls to ensure that some of the entrepreneurs are minorities.
One of the chief backers of such a plan is Charles R. Tate, executive vice president of the Booker T. Washington Foundation, which has helped promote miniority cable ventures in other communities around the country.
"Cable is one of the few new industries that work efficiently in the central cities, indeed in the ghettos," Tate said. "While other industries are leaving, here's an industry that has to come to the cities."
Tate contends that black youths and the hard-core unemployed in the cities can be given jobs installing the cable system. After it is completed, they can be trained to maintain it. Similar minority job training programs have been created around cable systems in other cities, Tate said, but not on the scale that is contemplated in Washington.
Tate argues that a black-led private venture would not be able to raise the estimated $75 million necessary to install a cable system in the District without sacrificing most or all of its control to investors or to a large outside cable firm.
In some other cities, he said, local minority controlled firms have joined with big cable operators to build a system, and thus held come equity. But in many cases the minority investors eventually accepted buy-out offers from the cable companies with the result that the minority control and equity is severly diluted or wiped out altogether.
For these reasons, Tate said, city government involvement is crucial. He also predicts that alternative ownership would eventually provide programming more responsive to the needs of a 70 percent black city.
But Bob Johnson disagrees. Johnson argues that an alternative approach would only bog down the already slow cable process in the District. All the city has to do to ensure that minorities get a piece of the action and all the job development and special programming they want, he said, is to write those provisions into the contract of a franchise operator.
Johnson has been trying for more than a year to secure the inside track toward winning a franchise. He has involved a number of Washingtonians -- including David Abramson, Barry's 1978 caapaign advertising man, and the Rev. A. Knighton Stanley, pastor of Peoples Congregational Church in politically important Ward 4 -- in an effort to show that his group District Cablevision, is truly local.
Meanwhile, it is not lost on the many players in the cable game that 1982 is an election year and Barry and the City Council may not be eager to make tough decisions when so many parties are interested in the outcome. Given the snail's pace of the cable process, there are plenty of opportunities for delay. No one expects decisions before the election.
But those decisions are waiting to be made, and they will determine what D.C. residents see when they flick on their television sets in 1984 or 1985 -- the completion targets predicted in the task force report. The decisions also will determine who will benefit most from the District's cable systems.