It's crunch time. Cable's detractors are beating
the drums of war again. They're closing in, perceiving an opportune moment to attack
the industry in order to reignite the debate about rate regulation. Despite all of the
facts to the contrary, their point of view is getting the attention of some regulators and
lawmakers, while it generates plenty of ink in newspapers throughout the nation.
For the industry's part, one would have to have been
deaf or dead not to have heard the early warnings of National Cable Television Association
president Decker Anstrom over the past few months. As usual, cable's leading
Washington, D.C., advisor was right on the money.
A chilling example of the way that newspapers are handling
this story appeared several weeks ago, in the form of a feature article on the front page
of the business section of a major New Jersey daily. Titled, "Prefer Cable or
Satellite? Stay Tuned," the first five sentences of the 23-paragraph piece discussed
"a recent surge in cable rates," referred to the failure of the 1996
Telecommunications Act and quoted a spokesperson from the Consumers' Union who
declared, "Consumers have no alternatives." After establishing these
introductory points, the following 21 paragraphs went on to compare the advantages and
disadvantages of consumers' choice between cable and satellite -- the outcome,
according to the author, pretty much a draw.
Then, 10 days ago, cable's most impassioned
Congressional critic, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), introduced his long-anticipated
regulation-extension bill. More interesting than the bill itself was Markey's slick
use of quick sound bites, perfectly designed for newspapers to print. "A cable-rate
El Niño" describes Markey's prediction of the world after the sunset of rate
regulation next year. He blames this potential storm on a "complete lack of
competition" in the cable industry, regardless of the fact that evidence doesn't
support the charge at all.
The timing of all of this attention is not a random event.
The month of March is symbolic because during that month in 1999, the rate-regulation
sunset enacted as a part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act is scheduled to take effect.
That's why Markey has begun his campaign to delay it. That's why Congressional
hearings are being scheduled where four or five witnesses will be invited to testify. In
the interest of fairness, each will represent different constituencies. This means that
one person from the cable industry will try to present the facts, while most or all of the
others will attack cable's rates and competition. The newspapers will report on the
hearings, complete with juicy sound bites -- attacks on the industry that make better ink
than the factual information about rising costs and improved service.
Isn't it time for the cable industry to pre-emptively
counter the industry's critics who consistently choose to ignore the facts?
Can't we get people to understand that cable's competitors have succeeded in
penetrating the multichannel-television market, to the tune of 13 percent in a few short
years? Hasn't anyone heard the satellite industry's own statements to Wall
Street that they have experienced the most wildly successful launch of a new consumer
product in history? Isn't it odd that those same satellite executives take the
shuttle down to Washington and plead for more regulatory handouts to give them a leg up in
their competition with cable? Don't they know that one out of every two new
subscribers to multichannel television in 1997 purchased the service through a competitor
Enough moaning. The cable industry has a great story to
tell -- we just need to get out there and tell it. Cable's plant is more high-tech
and high-speed than that of any of its competitors. Cable companies are important
contributors to local economies because they employ people (and voters) right in the
communities that they serve. They support public-interest projects like Cable in the
Classroom, and they donate millions of dollars worth of ad insertions to local, nonprofit
organizations. Cable is on the right side of important social issues that affect the
industry, such as its support of the voluntary TV-ratings system. Today, cable systems
answer their phones faster than ever, and technicians arrive at appointments on-time
almost all of the time.
And what about the $5 billion being spent annually for
rebuilding and upgrading its plant, and the dozens of new networks that are delivered
after the systems are expanded? Cable has a fabulous story to tell -- subjects like
digital TV, high-speed access to the Internet, improved reliability and remarkable picture
and sound quality.
I had the occasion to talk with my Congressman recently
about the Markey bill. He knew about his colleague's assertions, and he was thinking
about his argument. He listened intently to my explanation of the current situation, and
he challenged me to explain why a Markey bill would be harmful to new capital investment
and to true competition in telecommunications.
Then, he made one indisputable comment to me: "You
need to tell your story so that the public understands."
I knew that he was right. Shame on us if we fail to do that
-- to support those in Congress who take the time to understand the facts better than the
public does, and to vote accordingly. Public perception is so important here. After all,
every member of the House of Representatives has to go home every two years and defend his
or her voting record. Of course, I explained how difficult it was to get newspapers to
print a balanced view. But I knew that the industry needed a collective, organized effort
to explain the improvements in service, the rising cost of procuring programming and the
enormous level of capital being spent to upgrade our networks.
Yes, it's crunch time. At this very moment, the cable
industry can choose to get the crap kicked out of it again, or it can act now. We need to
get before the editorial boards of every major newspaper in the country and tell the other
half of the story so that the papers will at least have the opportunity to report a
balanced article. If we don't, how can we complain when they print a one-sided story
against us? Sure, there will be plenty of people attacking us with juicy little sound
bites. That's why we must counter them now with great examples of community
involvement, capital expenditures, customer service, increased costs, supersonic surfing,
true telephony competition, digital technology, customer service and local employment --
just for starters.
But, please, schedule those meetings. You will be
astonished at how anxious most newspapers will be to meet with you and to hear your point
of view. We can influence this debate, but it will take each and every one of us to get
out there and make it a fair fight.
Michael S. Willner is president of Insight Communications