As the country revels in the wild decadence of "National Cable Month," Cox Cable has announced a new, lower-priced channel package with the Orwellian name of "Limited Basic Service." It is not dramatic news, but it provides customers willing to sift through the cable system's rhetoric with another glimpse of how the cable industry operates.
For $13.95 a month, "plus applicable federal copyright and city franchise fees," a Cox subscriber can now get a special, stripped-down package of 15 channels, primarily the over-the-air broadcast channels, such as KFMB-TV (Channel 8) and KGTV (Channel 10). None of the staples of cable--ESPN, TNT or CNN--are included in the "Limited Basic Service." Cox is realigning its channels, effective April 20, to accommodate the new package.
The current "Complete Basic Service," which is $19.95 a month "plus applicable federal copyright and city franchise fees," includes the now-customary 30 channels, and it remains unchanged. If current subscribers want the limited service, they will have to pay $29.95 to make the change.
In recent months, Daniels and Southwestern cable systems have done the same thing, usually eliminating senior-citizen or low-income discounts in the process. The new basic service is almost the same service at the same price as the discounted service, except now it's open to everybody, cable executives point out.
Cox spokeswoman Sandy Murphy acknowledged that "very few" people are likely to opt for the new service, especially since it is offering 50% of the service at 70% of the Complete Basic price.
"We are convinced the large majority of our customers will choose to stay with Complete Basic Service, as popular cable-exclusive channels such as ESPN, CNN and the Discovery Channel are an incredible value for only $6 more per month," Cox General Manager Bob McRann said in a press release. "However, we are also pleased to provide a low-priced, no-frills reception package to meet the needs of our customers who do not desire the cable-exclusive program services."
Nothing wrong with that, but there definitely is more to the story. It is not a coincidence that almost every cable system in the country has decided to make a similar benevolent gesture.
In a sense, the cable industry is making something of a preemptive strike. Given the current tenor of discussions at the Federal Communications Commission, it seems clear that if Congress votes to reregulate the cable industry, it will only impose restrictions on basic service and over-the-air broadcast channels, not on the price structures of cable-exclusive packages.
In other words, the FCC or the City of San Diego may be given the power to regulate the price of Cox Cable's new "Limited Basic" service, but Cox would still be able to raise prices for the "Complete Basic" service as it sees fit. Reregulation was "one of the factors" Cox considered when it decided to set up the Limited Basic Service, Murphy acknowledged.
Behind the press release jargon, the cable industry is simply attempting to adjust to changing times. By establishing new price tiers--which they admit few will use--the cable systems are making a nifty end run on efforts to put controls on the price of cable service.
In his March 31 "Telenotes" column, San Diego Union business writer Charles W. Ross told the story of Bret Nybo, a New Paria, Utah, resident who lives without phone service. After a one-line lead, Ross wrote, "Despite the challenges posed by rattlesnakes, dirt roads and a fickle water well, Nybo likes the solitude of life in this dusty, remote hollow."
That line, and the 10 paragraphs--11 inches of copy--that followed, were taken word for word, line for line, from a March 18 New York Times story.
Ross, a veteran Union reporter who recently broke the story about Pac Bell overcharging customers, said that the Telenotes column always is a compilation of wire service reports, and the New York Times News Service is one of the wires to which the Union subscribes. A line at the end of the column usually points out that "wire service dispatches were used in preparation of this article." But Ross said the tagline was accidentally omitted from the March 31 article.
"I never made any pretense of writing that," Ross said.
While it's commonplace for newspapers to incorporate wire service reports into stories, it's highly unusual to use such a long verbatim excerpt in a bylined column. Even with the tagline, it would be easy for a reader to assume Ross's column is a piece of original work and that he actually spoke to the subject, since his name appears at the top of the column.
"I'm not sure I subscribe to that," Union Executive Financial Editor Don Sevrens said.
Sevrens, who agreed that "there should have been a tagline," said that the column appears under a "logo," not a byline. Even though the logo includes Ross's name, it is not meant to imply that the column is anything but a compilation of wire reports, he said.