COMMITTED TO THE FIRST AMENDMENT
Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/25/2001 7:00:00 PM
Cashing in your chip
To the Edsel and videophone, you can add the V-chip. Nobody particularly wants it, or needs it or would probably have the patience to program it if they did. It's been more than a year since all new sets 13 inches or bigger had to contain a V-chip program-blocking device. Do any of those new set owners use it? Half the viewers still don't know how to set the clock on their VCR. Expecting them to master the seven-page directions on care and feeding of the V-chip (we'll show them to you from at least one TV owners' manual on request) was extreme optimism in the best-case scenario, and that's if there had been some great unfulfilled need for the device. There wasn't.
Enter Ernest Hollings, the earnest Senator from South Carolina has reintroduced a bill to ban violent programming at certain times of day, in this case, if a study finds that the V-chip isn't working. Why resurrect a bill that has failed time and again? Because nobody is volunteering to use the voluntary V-chip. If one piece of unnecessary legislation fails (back in 1996, Congress mandated the V-chips be installed), then the answer must be to propose another piece of unnecessary legislation. Actually, it is at least the fourth time Hollings has introduced this bill or one like it. So far, mighty Casey is on his second at bat without a hit. We always suspected that the V-chip was not meant to be an option for viewers. Hollings' actions speak louder than all the "voluntary" talk surrounding the authorizing legislation in 1996.
As we point out each time this bill is introduced, a violence ban is unconstitutional because a ban is never the most narrowly tailored means to the government's end. Nor is this end in the public interest, because it censors content. The fate of this bill should be the same as that of the others-the round file.
On a per-channel basis, cable-rate increases in 2000 have not even kept up with inflation. And that is not according to a study by the National Let's Make Cable Look Good Association. That's according to the FCC's legislatively mandated annual cable-rate study of thousands of operators. Unfortunately for cable, that was not the lead on most of the stories about the study. Its executive summary opened with the news that cable rates for both competitive and noncompetitive systems were up 5.8%, which was enough above the inflation rate (3.7%) to get the consumer groups exercised (of course, we guess just about any rise would have gotten a rise out of them). But that figure did not take into account the differences between last year's cable system and this year's upgraded model. Cable operators have been adding new channels and services at an impressive clip. In fact, the FCC study showed that 57% of the systems surveyed offer digital tiers, more than double last year's tally. Cable subs are getting an upgraded package at an average of a half-penny-per-channel increase.
No one should be surprised. The deregulated cable industry has increasing competition for subscribers, so, even though it still has an expensive plant to amortize and more expensive programming to pay for, it continues to add channels and services, while keeping the per-channel price competitive. "Despite an increased number of channels," the FCC report pointed out, "the per-channel rate for the competitive group was unchanged, at 57 cents over the 12 months ending July 1, 2000, and increased for the noncompetitive group, from 65 cents to 66 cents per channel over that period." The cable act of 1992 requires that the FCC conduct a rate survey to make sure increases are reasonable and justified. Its most recent study has found just that.
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