"When will I get cable television?" "Why is it taking so long?" "What are the hang-ups?"
These are some of the good questions people are asking in two local jurisdictions -- the District of Columbia and Montgomery County.
For the past five years residents have been promised a new television system offering a wide range of services, a variety of entertainment options, specially produced live sports programs and community and educational channels -- in short, the greater diversity known as cable television.
But for many, cable television is still a dream.
The problem began decades ago when local politicians, like their counterparts across the country, first considered the effect of cable on their towns and cities. They believed the social and economic benefits would be great -- that it would help cure unemployment, spur development, perhaps even rescue a city from its financial problems. The cable companies came along with offers that were hard to refuse. In the end, the officials not only hoped for too much, they grabbed for too much.
Now, as everyone is learning with great dismay, the cable companies are reneging on their promises. Cable is not, and cannot be, the social and economic cure-all some thought it would be.
Cable television is a business, and like any other business, the bottom line is profit. Financing is a major consideration in the success of any cable system. Construction is expensive, and investors are reluctant to risk investing in urban markets without assurances of being able to recoup the cost of their investment.
The growth of cable also has been slowed by the tendency of local governments to require state-of-the-art cable systems. This requirement, more than any other factor, has contributed to the escalating costs, which cannot be readily offset by higher subscription fees. Then, too, there are the problems of inflation, high interest rates and unrealistic franchise demands.
In Washington, District Cablevision Inc. has requested modifications even before construction has begun. Meanwhile, in Montgomery County, Tribune-United, two years after construction began, has declared the franchise to be financially unrealistic. Both companies argue that modifications are necessary because financial conditions now are far different from what they were in the year the franchises were negotiated.
And in the case of District Cablevision, there's an additional hitch: Without modifications, the mandatory minority participation in ownership of the system is in jeopardy. Black firms such as DCI have extreme difficulty in obtaining the type of financing required to design and develop urban cable TV systems. It is estimated that DCI will need more than $100 million to implement the system it promised the D.C. Council. Without modifications, it will have to sell the franchise.
On the other hand, the Montgomery County system is owned by one of the top cable operators in the country. Obtaining financing to construct the system hasn't been a problem. But, according to one county official, mismanagement has been. Ever since Tribune-United announced its intention to sell the system, construction has slowed, and the owners have refused to meet their obligations to the county. To further complicate the situation, County Executive Charles Gilchrist wants to revoke the franchise altogether.
On top of the internal problems with the cable companies themselves, there is the sticky matter of regulatory power. The District and Montgomery County now have regulatory authority over cable, but they also must comply with the Cable Act, passed by Congress in 1984. Since that act was passed, local governments' power to regulate cable has been reduced dramatically. Some see this deregulation as giving the subscriber more control over scheduling, rates and programming.
More important, when the courts have been asked to resolve disputes between local governments and the cable industry, the trend has been to favor the industry. Furthermore, the cable industry is currently engaged in lobbying efforts to persuade the public that consumer interests can be served best with less government regulation.
The evidence indicates that local governments will have to make substantial changes in their attitude toward cable television if it is to succeed. Without such changes, the struggle will continue, and consumers will be driven to seek competing telecommunications technologies, particularly those that are relatively free of government regulations and do not depend on costly and cumbersome wiring. The options include subscription television (such as Super TV Channel 50), multipoint distribution systems (such as Home Box Office), satellite master antenna television (available to apartment complexes) and, of course, the rapidly expanding home-video industry.