Senate votes to regulate cable TV


WASHINGTON -- Defying both the cable television industry and the Bush administration, the Senate voted yesterday to impose local and federal regulation on cable rates and to force cable companies to pay for broadcasters' programming.

Spurred by consumer anger over rising charges and poor service from cable operators, the Senate adopted a bill that would require the Federal Communications Commission to establish national guidelines for basic cable television rates.

The FCC would then regulate rates itself or allow local authorities to do so, provided they followed the national guidelines. Most of the cable industry's rates were deregulated in 1984.

The Senate vote was 73-18, with a majority of senators from both parties supporting regulation.

The House has consistently been more enthusiastic than the Senate about regulating the cable industry. Similar legislation has been pending in the House as leaders there have waited to see whether the Senate, which blocked a cable-regulation bill in 1990, was willing to change its position.

The Bush administration threatened Monday to veto the Senate version, contending that recently proposed legislation to allow telephone companies into the cable industry would create enough competition tohold down cable television rates and improve service.

The Senate vote was a clear triumph for the major networks and local television stations, which would be allowed by the bill, for the first time, to begin collecting fees for the retransmission of the stations' signals.

Consumer groups support the bill because it would control rates and force cable programmers to sell their own channels, such as CNN and ESPN, at "reasonable" rates to all cable and satellite television companies. About 3.6 million mostly rural families in the United States rely on home satellite dishes, often because they cannot hook up to cable.

The average rate charged to cable subscribers climbed 61 percent nationwide from 1986 to 1990, with rates doubling and tripling in some cities. But the cable industry says that because the number of available cable channels was also increasing during that period, the rate per channel was rising by only slightly more than the inflation rate.

In Maryland, which had more than 900,000 cable subscribers last year, rates in some areas have more than tripled since 1986, according to figures released by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's office.

The basic fee in Baltimore, for example, was $18 a month last year, up from $4.95 in 1986. The 156,000 subscribers in Baltimore Countypaid $21.95 a month in basic fees, up from $10.70 five years earlier.

"I have heard from a lot of people in Maryland who are paying more and more for their cable television -- even as their service gets worse," Ms. Mikulski said. "It is time for communities to have a say in guaranteeing their residents adequate cable television service at a fair price. This bill takes some important steps in this direction."

The cable industry contends that consumers will actually be hurt if the extra fees paid to broadcasters are high enough to push up monthly cable rates. If regulators set rates too low, the cable industry has warned, it might spend less money to develop new or better programs.

"This so-called consumer protection bill, designed for the benefit of the conventional broadcasting industry, would force cable subscribers' dollars to go to support CBS and NBC, at the expense of cable channels like Discovery and CNN," said James P. Mooney, president and chief executive of the National Cable Television Association.

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