Station Breaks

The government's campaign against cable television

When you next settle into your cushy La-Z-Boy Recliner, hoisting a nice cool one after a trying day in the real world, try this: Aim your trusty remote and channel surf for some news, information, or public-affairs programming. Chances are that you will light upon Crossfire or Capital Gang on CNN, Equal Time or Pozner & Donahue on CNBC, a college course offering on ME/U, a history lesson on the Learning Channel, a biography on A&E, a sexual harassment trial on Court-TV, congressional hearings on C-SPAN, or a Noam Chomsky speech on C-SPAN2. Perhaps you will zero in on Politically Incorrect or Women Aloud on Comedy Central, or flick your way over to a "Rock the Vote" rally on MTV. Or you may just get briefed by Headline News.

Don't be alarmed, but you have just committed an incendiary political act of revolutionary import: Every one of those viewing choices was not so long ago a target of the U.S. government. If the regulatory policies crafted between 1959 and 1972 had continued, Americans wouldn't be able to indulge in such antisocial viewing choices. Cable programming was then officially judged a menace to society, and the Federal Communications Commission had launched a regulatory jihad against it. Like all holy wars, this offensive was undertaken in "the public interest."

And you thought you had First Amendment rights as an American patriot. You have been watching too much TV!

This episode is of more than historical significance. Because in today's world, hardly a millisecond lapses without yet another government or foundation report issued extolling the frightening challenges posed by the emergence of Information Superhighways. The theme of each policy analysis is strikingly symmetric: The explosion of competition threatens to divide America into information-rich and information-poor. Having divined a crisis, these policy entrepreneurs leap to the rescue. We will, they promise, enforce strict universal access rules and save society from this horror-strewn high-tech future. We will intercept the destructive market forces, and mold the emerging technologies into our regulatory model. We will shape the new communications network to serve the public interest.

The FCC has been there, done that. In 1966, the high holy days of anti-cable rulemaking in Washington, the commission boldly premised its suppression of wired TV (then called CATV, for community antenna television) thusly: "CATV systems cannot serve many persons reached by television signals. [Today, cable passes more than 96 percent of U.S. homes.] Persons unable to obtain CATV service, and those who cannot afford it or who are unwilling to pay, are entirely dependent upon local or nearby stations for their television service. The Commission's statutory obligation is to make television service available, so far as possible, to all people of the United States on a fair, efficient, and equitable basis....This obligation is not met by primary reliance on a service which, technically, cannot be made available to many people and which, practically, will not be available to many others. Nor would it be compatible with our responsibilities to permit persons willing and able to pay for additional service to obtain it at the expense of those dependent on the growth of television facilities for an adequate choice of services."

Cable's indictable offense was that it threatened the revenue earned by UHF (ultrahigh frequency) television licensees. Cable operators were accused of "fragmenting" and "siphoning" the audiences needed by UHF. These stations, placed on the higher frequencies (then channels 14 to 83), had been given an almost impossible assignment by the FCC: to compete in local TV markets head-to-head with VHF (very high frequency) signals that can be far more easily received. An alternative licensing scheme, which would have made local TV markets either all-VHF or all-UHF (thereby making it easier for UHF to survive) was specifically rejected by the commission. But the FCC, having brutalized UHF on its own, certainly did not want cable competitors piling on. The success of UHF had been determined to be in the public interest.

To protect a universal service never actually provided by UHF, the FCC swatted down a cable industry which--when deregulated years later--would actually deliver the FCC's stated goals. In short, to save "universal service," the government elected to kill competition. It succeeded only in the latter, cheating the American public of the bountiful choices made possible by technology. Today, as new opportunities fly out of Silicon Valley at the pulse rate of light waves over fiber optics, they too must circle in public-policy holding patterns. Social planners, we are told once more, must carefully contemplate the ramifications of robust--and unsettling--competitive rivalry in advanced telecommunications networks. Today's Information Superhighway appears stymied by roadblocks remarkably similar to those used to thwart yesterday's television interstate.

Strangling Cable in the Crib

The federal government's campaign against cable television began in the industry's earliest days. Although television was first demonstrated as technically viable in the 1920s and the British Broadcasting Corporation had begun regularly scheduled shows in the 1930s, TV was slow in coming to the United States. By 1948, only 107 licenses had been issued, and only 16 stations were broadcasting. (Today, there are over 1,400 operating in the United States.) Even this was too speedy for the FCC, charged with regulating this market under the 1934 Communications Act. It froze its licensing actions in 1948 pending a grand master plan for the television marketplace, issued in 1952.

Cable television arose during this freeze, sprouting in places where the transmissions of then-licensed stations didn't reach. Cable systems offered no programming of their own; they just pulled down stations from the nearest available mountaintop or microwave link and ran them to homes. Because cable extended broadcast signals to greater numbers of viewers, the broadcasters loved it.

Twice during the 1950s the FCC staff recommended that the commission regulate cable; twice the commission declined. Why bother asserting jurisdiction over a technology that didn't even use the airwaves? By mid-1959, though, the commission began to change its mind. Broadcasters, coincidentally, had become less cable-friendly when a few daring entrepreneurs began inserting new, non-local signals on cable systems. This bold marketing move gave subscribers an actual choice between local broadcast fare and something different. Very uncool. The FCC swung into action; cable had stepped across a Regulatory Line of Death.

One major battleground was San Diego which, owing to its hills and valleys, was one of the first urban areas to be cabled in the United States, beginning in 1963. San Diegans could receive the three networks, but no independents. Los Angeles, on the other hand, enjoyed seven independent stations, and all seven were carried by four different CATV systems in San Diego by 1966. The arrival of L.A.'s indies, plump with sports at a time when San Diego had no big-time teams other than the Chargers of the American Football League, was a treat for viewers. Indeed, in a 1966 FCC proceeding the "smoking gun" evidence of cable's nefarious impact was that, in one small area where cable had been available for just three months, "Of the 159 homes in that area, 58 were wired for CATV--and this [a local broadcaster pointed out] 'is in an area where all three stations can be satisfactorily received.'"

Now that was a crisis. If allowed to go unchecked, viewers might have the ability to opt out of their government-licensed broadcast "choices." The alarm was sounded when the FCC certified that viewers did indeed like the L.A. stations' programming and appreciated the opportunity to watch it. The FCC wrote: "During the period 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, there was no duplication by any Los Angeles station of programs broadcast in San Diego and the cable subscriber could watch any one of 10 different programs. Among nonsubscribers interviewed, 95 percent of those who watched television during that hour watched one of the San Diego stations. Among cable subscribers the Los Angeles stations accounted for 52 percent and the San Diego stations 48 percent."

The commission was alarmed by this consumer choice thing and projected that allowing cable to bring extra signals into a market would fundamentally threaten the viability of broadcasters. Since broadcasters had received airwave rights at no charge only because they had promised to abide by their obligations as public trustees, damaging broadcasters meant destroying the public interest itself.

Starting with the so-called Carter Mountain decision (1962) and continuing through rulemakings in 1965, 1966, 1968, and 1970, the FCC handed down a series of regulations that placed onerous burdens upon cable operators attempting to do business in the top 100 U.S. television markets (with about 90 percent of U.S. television households).

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