'Gridlock,' new law keeping channels off local cable

Have you checked out the new Cartoon Network on cable television, which on Oct. 1 began screening a collection of old series such as "Yogi Bear," "The Jetsons" and "The Flintstones"?

How about the Sci-Fi Channel, which launched a week earlier with such oldies as "Lost in Space," "Battlestar Galactica" and "The Twilight Zone," as well as original new programming?


Of course you haven't, because no Baltimore region cable systems yet carry the two newest national cable networks. And for viewers in some areas, including Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties, it will be a long time before these services are available.

"We're pretty much in channel gridlock," said Robert Gunther, spokesman for Comcast Cablevision, which operates the major cable carriers in those three counties. "If we were to add services, we would have to bump something else, and each of our current channels has its following."


Prospects seem better for Baltimore City, Annapolis and the southern portion of Anne Arundel County, where cable companies in the United Artists network have greater channel capacity. But it still may be the first of the year before one or both new services can be seen in those areas.

Marilyn Harris-Davis, community affairs director for United Artists Cable in Baltimore, said carrying the channels depends on the result of negotiations between the networks and Tele-Communications Inc., the parent company of United Artists. spokesman at the Annapolis-based United Artists system concurred that direction is pending from TCI.

So far, Montgomery County Cable is the only Maryland service carrying the Cartoon Network, a product of Turner Broadcasting. The Multi-Vision Cable system in the Lanham area of Prince George's County is the only state system that offers the Sci-Fi Channel, which is affiliated with the USA Network, according to the network.

Further complicating the programming issue is uncertainty over the impact of the cable television re-regulation act, which has many companies reluctant to commit to any new program services.

Under the new law, the Federal Communications Commission has until April to adopt detailed regulations for cable companies. Unclear is whether the regulations will require systems to pay for carrying broadcast services, such as network affiliate stations, which they currently retransmit at no cost.

"Everybody's in kind of a holding pattern until then," Mr. Gunther said, for companies cannot estimate the cost of implementing the new regulations. Thus they are not likely to make significant immediate investment in new programming or, in Comcast's case, in technological improvements to enlarge channel capacity, he explained.

"It's unfortunate that these networks launched at this time . . . but we'd hate to add new channels and then find we have to change the lineup again," said Gary Massigilia, general manager of Jones Intercable, which serves 42,000 subscribers in the northern half of Anne Arundel County.

The situation with The Sci-Fi Channel and The Cartoon Network launch is not new.


County viewers, for example, do not receive the Comedy Central service, nor American Movie Classics, The Movie Channel and The Learning Channel. Mr. Gunther says these services, all of which are seen on the city's cable system, are frequently requested and would be considered along with Cartoon and Sci-Fi whenever Comcast is able to add service.

And no area systems yet carry Court TV, the year-old legal network that telecasts daily real trials from across the country. Sources at local companies say the demand for that service has been small.