A Senate "cable emancipation" bill, already drawing static from suburban Virginia and Maryland officials, would gut efforts by many local governments nationwide to regulate cable television services and rates paid by subscribers, a House subcommittee was told yesterday.
The proposed legislation, born of a hotly debated compromise between the National League of Cities and the National Cable Television Association, an industry group, could devastate localities' attempts to guarantee high quality cable TV at a reasonable cost, area officials said in interviews this week.
Montgomery County cable project manager John Hansman, interviewed yesterday, branded the proposal "a badly written, confusing bill that would undermine the existing franchise agreements, including the one we recently agreed to."
New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, appearing before a House subcommittee on telecommunications, consumer protection and finance, argued yesterday the House should scrap the Senate bill -- approved by the Senate Commerce Committee last month and scheduled for full Senate action on June 13 -- and start from scratch.
"If cable systems were left to marketplace forces alone, the poor might never receive any cable service," said Koch.
Operators of cable television systems, which reach about 35 million homes, complain that the patchwork of complicated and inconsistent local regulations across the country are unduly burdensome and expensive. More than 4,000 local governments have granted exclusive cable franchises in their jurisdictions.
Thomas E. Wheeler, president of the Washington-based National Cable Television Association, told the subcommittee yesterday that 22 cents of each dollar received from subscribers goes toward costs created by local regulations.
The Senate measure, opposed by more than 150 cities and counties nationwide, has split the National League of Cities and spawned a "renegade group" of League members working to kill or substantially change the bill. League officials argue that the bill is the best that cities and counties can get at this time and is a vast improvement over other proposals.
The bill would restrict the authority of localities to regulate cable, limiting their control over rates and forbidding the imposition of numerous requirements on cable companies.
Under the measure, the authority of municipalities to grant monopoly franchises is clearly spelled out, a key provision sought by the League. That authority is being challenged in numerous lawsuits across the country, on First Amendment and antitrust grounds.
Many local officials, however, say they disagree. "When they cable operators have a monopoly, we've got to be able to regulate rates on a local basis," says Supervisor Audrey Moore of Fairfax County, where a cable system is under construction. Moore recommended earlier this week that Fairfax withdraw from the League, but failed to win support from fellow board members.
Michele Evans, assistant city manager of Alexandria, which has had cable for 2 1/2 years, also criticized a provision in the Senate bill that would force governments to renew franchises with the same cable company, unless they can prove the company failed to perform properly.
Cable operators maintain they need a guarantee that they will not be kicked out of an area after making multimillion dollar investments.
Howard Stone Jr., executive director of the cable television commission in Prince George's County, where the cable system is under construction, argued that local governments need the enforcement tools of rate controls and franchise renewals to protect viewers.
"In many cases, franchise companies come in and promise you everything in the sky," said Stone. "Then when the franchise is awarded, all sorts of problems arise."