Like a bad TV soap, the story of cable franchising in America's cities and counties is a series of thin plots that stretches over years of trials, tribulations, financial setbacks, broken promises and false finales. And now the sad news has been flashed anew to all would-be cable viewers in the District of Columbia: You ain't seen nothin' yet -- and that's what you're going to see more of.
The company that was awarded the franchise here -- and that swore on a stack of specifications that it would do what it promised on time and within budget -- says it can't live up to the contract it signed. That's not what you'd call a confidence- builder, and the D.C. Council should have a stack of tough questions and airtight financial commitments ready for the franchise-holder before it agrees to anything other than what is on the books already.
District Cablevision, Inc., is now saying that unless its obligations -- in terms of money as well as services -- are curtailed substantially, it will not be able to produce the necessary capital. Officials of this firm argue that its difficulties are "by no means unique," that "in major urban areas throughout the country, franchisees are now experiencing major difficulties in obtaining the necessary capital for construction of cable systems." That's true, but weren't we hearing that this firm's proposal -- projections, financing and all -- would be different, that the District would profit by the mistakes made elsewhere?
It may still. Some of the cutbacks proposed -- a drop from a 78-channel system to one with 60, for example -- would be no hardship. Similarly, changes in the arrangements for public access channels need not deprive either viewers or the city in any significant way. But DCI is also proposing higher rates than it agreed to; puttig off the wiring in neighborhoods that require underground cables in favor of doing aerial work first; and limiting its obligation to wire all homes by putting a $500 average ceiling (would these be 1985 dollars?) on what it would spend on a unit. Homes not wired would be offered alternative services, mainly satellite dishes.
Even if all this were agreed to, how sure is anyone anymore that the money will be there? Right now, city officials say, DCI has $52,000 in cash on hand, owes large sums and will be unable to pay a $250,000 franchise fee due to the city this month. If the big money is really contingent on modifications, the city needs written guarantees that this is so. And no matter what DCI and the city might agree to, any financial commitments had best be spelled out to the last penny, or penalty, whichever proves to be the case.
Should the city throw out the whole arrangement and find another bidder? That could be worse, given the tendency of all cable bidders to overpromise to an even worse degree than DCI has. If a genuinely realistic agreement can be struck -- and the money to make it happen can be produced up front for all to see -- cable may still be in the offing. The next episode -- live, from city hall -- will be a public meeting on the issue, scheduled for July 2.