The cable television bill before the D.C. council would permit private companies to submit bids to own and operate the cable franchise in the District. I support this legislation and the conventional form of cable ownership it proposes.
But proponents of municipal/co-op/public ownership take the position that cable is an essential municipal service possessing the characteristics of a public utility such as electricity and should be controlled by the public to maximize public access and service.
Advocates of private ownership argue that cable is a communications business delivering non-essential entertainment and information services and that it competes in the free marketplace with other businesses that provide similar and competitive services, such as free commercial television, movie theaters, security alarm companies and newspapers. They also argue that cable is not a public utility, because there are alternatives to the services it offers and it is not essential to the well-being of the community. This view been adopted by most cities, states and the FCC.
The Cable Television Information Center, a non-profit organization that assists city officials in dealing with cable franchising, identifies three major considerations that should be addressed when evaluating ownership proposals: 1) financial, 2) managerial and 3) the public interest.
* It has been estimated that the cost of wiring Washington could go as high as $100 million. At a time of soaring interest rates and marketplace instability, financing for cable is difficult to obtain, even for private companies with extensive cable holdings. A CTIC report asked officials to consider these questions: Does the city have resources for financing a cable system, both in terms of initial outlays and continuing capital improvements? Would the goal be to make money for the city, or would the emphasis be on the dimensions of service? If additional funds were needed, what would be the sources? Revenue bonds? General tax funds? If cable is a non-essential service, should public funds be used for cable investments in view of more pressing priorities, such as housing and education?
* Cable television requires skilled technical personnel and sophisticated management. The CTIC poses these questions: Would the city have the high-quality manpower to operate the system? Would municipal ownership make it difficult to attract top management in view of civil service rules, salary scales, etc.? Would municipal/public ownership contribute to m ore innovative and imaginative programming?
* Most citizens would object, as I do, to government control/ownership of mass communications at the local or national level because of the potential for abuse of First Amendment rights. Abuses can occur under either system. Under private ownership, government oversight can correct abuses. But when the government s both owner and regulator, who will watch the watchers?
Citizens in a free enterprise system also should ask: Why should the city even consider ownership if a private company is willing to operate a system that will benefit the city financially and serve the public interest?
Cable television is a high-risk, capital-intensive venture -- not a panacea for social and economic problems. If the municipal government tries to operate a cable system and fails, you and I will suffer the consequences, both as taxpayers and as consumers.
The most effective way to bring cable to the District is through private ownership. The city should 1) adopt a cable ordinance; 2) draft an enlightened and enforceable franchise proposal; 3) conduct an open and honest selection process; and 4) make an award based on the merits and commitment of a company to serve the public interest.