IN REMOVING NEARLY all programming restraints from the fast-growing cable television industry, the Federal Communications Commission has opened the way for greater diversity on the home screens -- while creating challenges for both the commercial broadcasting industry of today and the cable markets to tomorrow. Many commercial broadcasters are less than ecstatic about the prospect of wide-open competition for viewers. But this anxiety is no justification for maintaining the protections that broadcasting has been enjoying as a result of regulations on cable.
For more serious -- and likely to intensify in the wake of this decision -- are the grubby political scrambles for cable franchises, in which connections, influence and promises serve as the currency in the bidding competition. They are taking place all around the country, and one need look no further than Prince George's or Fairfax counties for classic examples.
In Prince George's, the cast of competitors and agents for some 30 cable firms includes the former Democratic county executive, two close associates of the incumbent Republican executive and three other county politicians -- all working their political connections to get a stake in an area where the profits should be in the millions.
In Fairfax, at last count there were 13 former or current public officials affiliated with potential bidders. In addition, the wheeling and dealing had included some interesting players: the local public television station WNVT, for one, was reported to have been involved in discussions about possible offers of money and/or stock from cable companies to the station in return for whatever influence the non-profit station might bring to bear on franchise decisions. Another group, the Fairfax County Council of the Arts, was reported to have accepted a 1 percent interest in a cable firm in exchange for advice on arts programming.
Is this any way to conduct bidding on what amounts to exclusive control over a utility? If the phone company or the electric company were offering stock or percentages of profits to public officials and various other institutions -- at the consumers' expense -- there would be howls of protest, just as there would be if awards for these utility franchises were made on standards other than lowest price and performance.
There are government efforts in both counties and elsewhere to codify and clean up franchising procedues. In Montgomery County, for example, officials are considering barring the executive or the council from any private discussion of franchises with applicants or their representatives. County Executive Charles Gilchrist believes the public should be assured that merit, and not local connections in the "rent-a-citizen game" or promises of local program services, will be the determinant.
The National Cable Television Association, too has begun work on a code of ethics and guidelines for franchising, as has the National League of Cities; the two groups originally met to discuss a joint project, which would be a sensible approach, but differences over other policies have put off this venture. Still, disclosure and self-regulation are essential in this new industry; otherwise, the unpleasant alternative is likely to be more cumbersome regulation attempts by the federal government.