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Commentary

August 25, 1985|TOM SHALES | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Cable TV systems and networks are cooperating in a public-relations campaign to discourage people from "stealing" cable TV programming. Some people manage to patch into their local cable systems without paying, others get premium services like Home Box Office and Showtime for free through one form of technical legerdemain or another.

If the cable industry spent as much time upgrading its services as it does trying to sniff out and snuff out pirates, cable TV might not be quite the big letdown that it is. Compare the reality of Cable 1985 with the sky-pie promises of yesteryear and you see a fat frog that started out as a public-spirited prince.

While never one to encourage lawbreaking, I cannot for the life of me imagine a crime more defensible than putting one over on the miscreants and jackanapes who run cable TV. My cable system puts one over on me every month when they send me the bill.

As infuriating as cable TV can be--whether it's lousy service from one's local system or the agony of endlessly repeated movies on the pay channels--it may soon be getting worse. Two recent decisions affecting cable TV will enable it to become more expensive and less responsive. The abiding goal of the cable industry is to deliver less while charging more for it.

In July, the ever-daffy Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which bravely champions the rights of media millionaires to get richer and media empires to get bigger, decided to curtail sharply the control local governments have over rates charged by cable TV systems.

If your basic monthly cable bill has gone up recently, this decision is the reason. If it hasn't, it will.

Until some court strikes down the FCC ruling (it is being appealed) or Congress intervenes, cable system owners are free to raise rates willy-nilly without getting local government approval.

What an inept regulatory commission won't do, a nutty judge might. In one of the least savory judicial pronouncements since a federal judge ordered the destruction of the telephone company, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals decided last month to strike down the so-called "must-carry rules" affecting cablecasters. The rules required cable systems to carry all the local stations in their service area.

This did sometimes lead to duplication of program choices (if, for instance, there were two ABC affiliates or two public TV stations on the same system), but it also helped keep the system and the service locally accountable. Unless the laggardly FCC comes up with new legislation that would satisfy the judges' objections, the "must-carry" rules will be history.

Then local cable operators will be free to dump any minority-interest stations from their systems in favor of something that brings in more revenue, like a premium channel viewers must pay to get, or one of Ted Turner's various slapdash enterprises. "Must-carry" rules were a hindrance to small cable systems of 12-channel capacity, but these systems need to be retooled anyway and brought up to date. For a system with 50 channels, "must carry" was hardly a burden.

As usual, the regulators seem to be on the side of the industry and unconcerned about those three charming values the FCC was founded to protect: "the public interest, convenience and necessity." The two decisions combined make the cable future look bleak for the consumer, and jolly for the industry, which whines at a steady pitch about how tough life is.

Cable TV systems are monopolies. The decisions make it possible for them to price cable TV, a necessity rather than a luxury, beyond the means of lower-income viewers. The whole idea of "narrowcasting," which meant that cable TV would be able to accommodate special tastes and interests ignored by mass-market television, now seems deader than dead. It's ultradead.

Given these developments, there will be greater incentive than ever for wily viewers to find ways to steal the cable signals they are supposed to pay for. There may be many responsible, fair and even efficient cable systems out there, but in general it looks like the barrel has more rotten apples than it should.

Many cable operators are specialists in one-way communication. If you try to reach them to complain about their miserable service, you can get a busy signal for eight hours straight. But if you are one day late with your payment, you can practically expect death threats, smear campaigns and a burning antenna on your front lawn.

Cable TV pirates are the guerrilla fighters of the video revolution.

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