Cable Regulation: Were We Ever Had


I know it has become fashionable to beat up on Congress.

But then, being accused of following the crowd has never stopped me before.

Case in point, and what's got my ire at the moment, are the new regulations affecting cable television rates. Add to that the news that several local stations and network programs may not be carried by my local cable provider come the second week of October.

All of this comes courtesy of the Cable TV Act of 1992, which was touted on Capitol Hill as the mechanism by which consumers would get some relief from soaring cable rates.

Were we duped.

In Howard County, most cable subscribers have their service supplied by Comcast Cablevision, which covers most of the eastern part of the county.

Comcast is raising its monthly rates for basic service by $1.52, to $9.47. For its Basic Plus service, which includes such offerings as ESPN, CNN and MTV, rates will go down by $1.52 a month.

Meanwhile, Mid-Atlantic, which provides service to the sparsely populated western part of Howard County, is nearly halving its basic rate from $17.28 to $8.95 and raising the Basic Plus rates from $28.31 to $31.

Even though some rates are being lowered, the impact in the Baltimore metropolitan area will mean higher rates for up to 40 percent of cable subscribers. The goal of a 10 percent across-the-board rollback is not being realized.

Why? Because the Federal Communications Commission set benchmark rates that were 10 to 15 percent lower than in monopoly markets. Where cable companies competed and rates were already relatively low, the cable companies were allowed to raise their rates up to the benchmark level.

In other words, the benchmark rates were too high from the beginning.

In addition, some cable companies were forced to lower their charges for remote controls and other equipment. The law simply allowed them to absorb the losses for equipment by raising rates.

In the industry, this is called "shifting." Everywhere else it's called shifty.

"Nobody intended for anybody's cable bill to go up under the act," said Bradley Stillman, legislative counsel for the Consumer Federation of America, which was a prime advocate on Capitol Hill for the re-regulation of cable television. "The fact that cable bills are going up says there's a problem with implementation of the act."

Now it appears that the FCC will go back to the drawing board and try to close the loophole that is causing so many problems.

But perhaps worse than the debacle over the rates is the way the act has impacted on cable's ability to carry Baltimore and Washington network affiliates.

As of early last week, Comcast had reached agreement with only two affiliates that would allow the cable company to carry their stations' broadcasts.

They were WBAL-11 and WNUV-54. As for WJZ-13, WJLA-7, WMAR-2 or WBFF-45, no agreement has been reached with the affiliates. The slim possibility exists that those stations will not be carried as of Oct. 6.

Mid-Atlantic won't even talk about what affiliates, if any, it has reached agreements with.

Of course, everyone appears to be hopeful that negotiations will bear fruit and one side will blink just before the deadline. But some are also warning consumers that they may have to buy "rabbit ears" to get their favorite stations.

As someone raised on television, this becomes a little worrisome. The idea of missing "Roseanne," "Seinfeld" or the World Series is asking too great a sacrifice.

David Zurawik, The Sun's television critic, recommends that cable subscribers call their service provider and the local affiliates and tell them that they want the affiliates to be carried.

I would add: Call your representative in Congress.

In an effort to be all things to all people, Congress allowed the FCC to set benchmark rates too high and, in a gesture to network affiliates, produced a situation where subscribers may end up paying more for less service.

If there was a good idea gone bad, this was it.

It's one more reason why people say they are fed up with Congress and the federal government.

Someone had better do something quick. Because as the song goes, "I want my MTV."

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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