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Cable Confusion


The confusion of City Council President Mary Pat Clarke about how to increase cable television competition is indefensible but understandable. The development of technology has been so rapid in recent years that the very nature of the cable industry has changed. With wired and wireless telephone companies poised to become program distributors, cable television faces intense competition from all directions.

None of this was predictable in the 1960s and 1970s, when what had started as community antenna television in Pennsylvania mountain hamlets to pull in faraway stations was introduced as an alternative for regular television broadcasting.

But even then, many of the nation's cities and counties were ill prepared to deal with cable. As a result, grabbing extremely lucrative franchises developed into a national gold rush, which produced a number of scandals. In places like Baltimore County, the franchise was awarded to politically connected speculators who made millions by selling to firms with expertise and deep pockets.

Vowing not to repeat the controversy of Baltimore County, Baltimore City studied cable television thoroughly before awarding development rights to United Artists Cable in 1984. Although the franchise was not exclusive, costs and technical limitations were such at the time that the award was widely seen as a monopoly.

Few communities are happy with their cable provider. Baltimore City is no exception. Citizens gripe about service, fees and channel selections provided by United Artists, a division of Tele-Communications Inc., the nation's largest cable company. When entrepreneur Gary Goldberg approached city officials about getting a franchise for his upstart firm, UltraVision LLC, many City Council members saw him as an answer to their prayers.

Perhaps the City Council had some expertise in cable in the 1980s, but today it has none. The way Mrs. Clarke and her colleagues initially wanted to rush a franchise agreement to UltraVision without any regard to the firm's background or fiscal and technical capacities showed a stunning ignorance about the realities of the cable industry.

Baltimore needs cable competition. But the city should not scramble into awarding additional franchises before it fully understands what it is doing. In particular, it should not under any circumstances consider new cable contracts in an election year. This mindless rush to latch onto any half-baked notion that comes in the door shows an immaturity and a dereliction of duty on the part of City Council incumbents.


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