The D.C. Council has just approved a cable television bill that no rational cable company in the country could accept and still expect to do serious business. It contains a provision that would permit the city to buy out the entire local cable system after it had been established by a private company--whether the company wanted to sell it or not.

The section in question begins by authorizing the District to acquire 10 percent of the band width, or channel capacity. That is not unusual; most systems set aside some channels for municipal uses. But then comes the sleeper: "When the municipal band width has become fully utilized, additional band width as deemed necessary by the District shall be made available to the District at the fair market value." Translation: whatever channels the city government wants to take over, it could, at whatever the market value happens to be (which, if this back- door city-ownership provision were to stick, might not be a great amount of money).

What private operator would buy this arrangement? Nobody, according to knowledgeable cable financiers. The provision could mean that a company could build a system and then have no safeguards or guarantees in return for its investment. Already, one company--District Cablevision--announced its intention to withdraw from the franchise process, citing an inability to obtain financing if it has no control of its channel capacity; similarly, prospective local minority investors would not be attracted to such an arrangement.

So, for once in the drawn-out history of cable in the District, there is a strong reason to back up briefly, and correct this unacceptable language. Otherwise, the only sensible option left for the mayor would be a veto.