ARTHUR UNGER, a mild-mannered New Yorker, was so fed up with the blood-red bars on his cable TV that he staged video rent strikes on and off for a decade.
He withheld hundreds of dollars. Why should he pay, since he wasn't getting the "perfect picture" that the cable people once ballyhooed in their ads?
Some 30 repairmen came to Unger's apartment over the years. His picture usually would improve -- only to fall apart again and require another rent strike. Manhattan Cable became a subsidiary of the powerful Time Inc., in the mid-1970s, but it still couldn't wor wouldn't rewire the cable to drain the blood away forever.
The Unger read that Time was after a cable franchise elsewhere in New York City. He threatened to testify against the $3 billion conglomerate as an expert witness -- the television critic of the Christian Science Monitor. a
Three trucks pulled up to his apratment. The bloddy bars vanished.
"If I were an ordinary viewer," Unger says after telling his story, questioned but not refuted by Manhattan Cable, "I still wouldn't be able to get good cable."
The patient TV critic never griped to government officials of any kind. But shouldn't New York City and the Federal Communications Commission have been riding herd on Manhattan Cable to maintain better technical standards? He says many of his neighbors still endure inferior cable service. s
So what's this talk about throttling back the FCC's budget and powers and encouraging the regulators to become even laxer? Sen. Barry Goldwater, chairman of the Senate Commerce communications subcommittee, even thinks that the commission's main job is to see that transmitters don't jam each other. Deregulation is sexy. But the new cable technology has actually increased the need for a strong FCC -- one that will keep Unger's TV picture clear and make sure that his electronic mail gets through ungarbled. And what about the other computerized services expected to reach American homes by cable?
Here are four reasons not to clip off the FCC's fangs -- and perhaps even give the commission some new ones:
1. Cable systems should be thought of as "common carriers" and the FCC, like it or not, is the best agency to police them.
Don't let the jargon scare you. "Common carrier" just means that the cables should be like the phone lines of today -- available to anyone with money to lease them at standard rates. Why should the cable operators choose which programs you watch or which computerized services you can receive? The Bell System doesn't normally control what goes out over its lines.
It might even be somewhat of a conflict for the same companies both to lay cables and determine what TV and computer services they offer. Suppose Company A owns a cable system and start a channel flashing news bulletins 24 hours a day. Suppose Company B can offer a better bulletin service summarizing not only AP and UPI but also Reuters. Will Company A let Company B compete? Allowing a local cable system to control just about all its offerings is like letting a private company build a highway and determine what traffic can pass. You'd better not let the same corporation be in both the road business and the trucking business -- at least not without guaranteeing that other truckers can also use the highway.
"Well," the cable interests might reply, "let the competitors detour to other roads."
But the electronic highways of cable TV aren't ordinary thoroughfares. Usually they are local momopolies with franchises lasting a decade or more, and the companies are likely to entrench themselves well enough to win renewals.
And cables potentially could have hundreds of channels and offer many more services than can normal phone lines. In fact, some phone companies and cable companies may end up being the same. Already the FCC is granting waivers for some smaller phone companies to enter the TV cable business -- and this could well be a foot in the door for the Bell System and its larger branches. Antitrust laws or not, Ma Bell tries to molest some competitors. Just look at the battle that Bell fought to prevent MCI and others from using existing facilities for competing long-distance service. MCI and the consumers prevailed in court, but only after years of struggle.
Computerized book banning is another danger of not having common carrier laws for cable systems covering both new technology and services already provided by phone companies. Otherwise some Bible Belt cables might decide to save their subscribers from electronic printouts of "The Catcher in the Rye."
So why can't the FCC set clear-cut national guidelines for common carrier cable leasing?
Then a city council wouldn't be able to rig the access rules to discriminate against a muckraking electronic newspaper. Exxon could pay for a three-hour documentary that offended the sensibilities of liberals in a college town. The Rev. Jerry Falwell's video missionaries could preach the gospel all day and night to San Francisco -- oblivious to the wrath of many of the natives.
The Rev. Falwell and other users could lease either cable channels or time periods on them, perhaps first-come, first-serve, with FCC regulating lease prices, though localities might have the option to insist on lower ones.
Or maybe the common carrier idea could be modified and some channels could be up for bids in the spirit of free enterprise.
Until a recent court decision, the FCC was in fact insisting that many systems have both two-way potential and at least 20 channels. Why not restore similar requirements? In fact, why not a 100-channel minimum for the largest cities?
Of course, even with federal common carrier rules, localities could play major roles in assigning channels. Perhaps they could lease out more than one-third under their terms, and some could be reserved for public, educational and government uses.
Channels like the government ones would be available to all cable subscribers, regardless of whether they rented descramblers to receive pay channels. Descramblers are devices that let people tune in coded signals from TV broadcasters or others whose services aren't a normal part of the system. One descrambler could be rigged to handle a number of pay channels so the subscribers needn't have several machines cluttering the tops of their TVs.
The technology of scramblers and other cable gadgetry can intimidate PhDs, and here's where a strong, competent FCC could be especially useful. If cable is standardized technically, the same as the phone system, the costs would be lower. Ideally, of course, the FCC would work closely with the electronics industry to prevent technical standards from discouraging experimentation.
2. An alert FCC should be around to safeguard the privacy of people and companies using cables for electronic banking and other purposes .
It should encourage equipement manufacturers to make their products as snoop-proof as possible.
3. The commission should have the clout to limit the percentages of channels that major TV networks have on individual cable systems .
What's to prevent CBS, ABC, NBC, Time's HBO and so on from spinning off enough subsidiaries to dominate the majority of channels?
CBS and ABC recently announced they would supply cultural programming for cable -- a smart move, since they're entering the field without competing with the bulk of their present offerings. But sooner or later the majors will start to supply us with more clones of "Dallas," and then they'll very possibly quash competitors.
A channel limit, by the way, could cover organizations besides commercial networks. "The Old-Time Gospel Hour's" cup over floweth, but the Rev. Falwell needn't lease every channel in sin cities.
4. The FCC should keep banning networks from owning cable systems .
They're major program suppliers, after all -- big truckers who would be very pleased to buy up roads to exclude other traffic. So the commission should reject CBS's recent request to be able to pursue franchises.
At the very least, the FCC should confine network ownership to a limited number of cities and take extra care to make sure that these cables remain common carriers. What's more, ownership restrictions should include any company, not just networks.
Ten corporations now own local systems serving 7.5 million of the 17 million U. S. cable subscribers -- 44 percent. So much for the argument that cable TV isn't already in danger of being conglomerated into mass mediocrity.
Seeking solutions at the FCC needn't mean apologizing for past performance. The agency has plagued broadcasters with whimsical rules and lawyer-enriching paperwork. And, as shown by Unger's 10-year war, the commission hasn't always kept technical standards high. But lack of money. How many engineers does Barry Goldwater think the FCC Cable Bureau has? Two hundred? Would he believe, two?
So Mr. Conservative should reconsider his attacks on the FCC's powers and work instead to direct the bureaucrats' energies toward worthwhile projects like common carrier cable TV.