This year's Super Bowl between the Washington Redskins and the Los Angeles Raiders racked up its latest victim this week: the unregulated cable television industry in Prince William County.
A cold snap in the early morning hours before that game contracted the cables and knocked out service to thousands of cable viewers in eastern Prince William.
Although the picture was restored to most homes by kickoff time, the panic that beset cable customers quickly sent a message to county supervisors: Something had to be done about the county's laissez faire attitude toward cable TV.
The ordinance that finally emerged and was passed unanimously by the county board Tuesday balances the supervisors' concern for protecting consumers with their hope of keeping cable service cheap. The result is a law that both cable officials and the politicians say they can live with, and one that should have relatively little impact on cable operators in the fast-growing county.
"It was a classic political debate" between supervisors seeking to enact a tough regulatory measure and those who believed the open marketplace is the industry's best regulator, according to County Attorney John H. Foote, who drafted the ordinance.
"The board wanted to avoid the complexity and expense of ordinances in effect in other jurisdictions," said C. Lacey Compton Jr., attorney for Prestige Cable, the county's largest cable television firm and a principal target of customer complaints.
Supervisors who initially opposed the draft ordinance argued that stringent demands on the county's five cable companies would sharply increase prices to Prince William's 26,000 subscribers without significantly improving service. Citing the proposal for a new post of county cable TV administrator, several opponents said the ordinance would create "another layer of government."
They also pointed to assertions by industry spokesmen that a tough ordinance requiring cable firms to build studios, provide public access channels and link up broadcasts among cable stations would increase subscription prices by as much as 30 percent. Prestige Cable, which has 15,000 subscribers, now charges $9.95 for basic monthly service.
Backers of the measure -- including four of five supervisors from eastern Prince William, where complaints about billing snafus were loudest -- said regulation was necessary to ensure minimum standards of service.
With three of the seven county supervisors leaning against any kind of ordinance, a compromise was struck earlier this month that, in the words of one supervisor, "gutted" the measure. By scrapping sections of the ordinance objectionable to the cable industry, the supervisors fashioned a law that they called politically palatable.
What resulted is one of the least burdensome cable regulations in the Washington metropolitan area, according to county officials and cable industry spokesmen.
Although the ordinance is replete with language specifying what the cable firms must do, industry representatives predict that very little will change next year.
"The ordinance does give you some clout you didn't have before," Foote said. "But it isn't a solution."