Backtalk: Life After the Sunset


I'm beginning to feel some empathy for John Malone andother titans of commerce who are so vocal in their anti-government spewing that theyalmost sound like card-carrying members of the right-wing militia.

March 31, 1999 -- the date when the Federal CommunicationsCommission lost its authority to regulate expanded-basic tiers -- has come and gone. Butunfortunately, the regulatory whining and swashbuckling about keeping cable rates in checkgoes unabated.

All of this at a time when the nation's leaders havedone absolutely nothing to protect consumers from soaring health-care costs or fromescalating airline prices with accompanying rises in shabby service.

But the government still can't resist kicking cable inthe teeth over its rates.

Unlike health care or the airline industry, cable is hardlyan essential service that affects the welfare or safety of the American nation. Yes, it isannoying to see rates go up, but cable subscribers who feel strongly about it have casttheir votes by disconnecting or switching to DBS.

Just what is it about cable that gets government types insuch a snit? Maybe it's just because cable is a relative no-brainer issue for electedofficials to get their arms around.

For years now, we've heard about reining in soaringmedical costs and giving all people health care, but there was never any legislationimposed on the medical field as punitive as the 1992 Cable Act was to the cable industry.

And on the airline front, there was some movement justseveral months ago to protect airline passengers' rights, but Congress doesn'tcare that one traveler might pay $1,000 for a ticket while the passenger next to him paidonly $200.

And our leaders don't want to get involved whenairline-union-related problems cripple travel, interfering with business and personaltraveling.

So as usual, it seems to be, "Let's pick on cableduring an election year." You have to wonder if our elected officials really thinkthat they have accomplished something when they go back and tell their constituents thatthey succeeded in harnessing cable rates.

As it is with most bureaucracies, the FCC, like a tenaciousterrier with a bone, just can't seem to give up the battle over cable regulation.Instead, it issues banal consumer alerts and casts blame on others.

On the very date when it lost its authority to furtherbadger a now mostly compliant cable industry, the agency issued a "Cable ConsumerBill of Rights Campaign."

That toothless, spineless document is the byproduct of aregulatory agency that at best looks silly and at worst looks malicious.

The FCC couldn't resist beating its chest with pride,saying that since 1993, it has resolved almost 18,000 complaints involving 5,700 cablecommunities, and it has ordered about $100 million in consumer refunds to 40 million cablesubscribers.

At the same time, the FCC couldn't resist laying theblame of why it no longer had the authority to regulate cable squarely at the feet ofCongress.

The FCC whined on that "even though our electedofficials had said that competition in the video marketplace would keep cable pricesreasonable," the commission still feels that that competition had not yetmaterialized as of March 31.

And so we say to the FCC, "Enough already."

Try telling that to all of the cable operators that havelost customers to DBS services, and you'll see eyebrows rise.

Try telling that to the cable operators that are investingbillions of dollars in upgrading plant to provide digital services, in order to stemfurther subscriber loss to DBS, and you'll see veins pop in foreheads.

And above all, forget about the eight-point Cable ConsumerBill of Rights campaign, because all you'll get is a snicker in response.