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You get what you pay for

Despite skyrocketing programming fees, despite increased investment in digital boxes and cable modems, despite the steady rise in all the other costs of doing business, cable operators have managed to keep rate hikes below the rate of inflation, if measured by the fairest yardstick, which is cost per channel. We pointed that out back in February when the FCC released its regular review of cable rates. It was the FCC that provided that per-channel figure of a 2.5% rate increase against a CPI bump of 3.7%.

You wouldn't have thought that was the case last week, though, as a pair of Massachusetts congressmen introduced legislation to turn the FCC back into a cable-rate court. To justify their bill, they made the blanket statement that cable rates had risen at almost three times the rate of inflation. Not according to the FCC. There are obviously some anecdotal cases in which there have been sharper rate increases. We know of one in, fancy that, Massachusetts, which is why this bill is surfacing. But legislating on the basis of anecdotes is bad government, as every intellectually honest lawmaker will tell you. That's how Congress came to pass the 1992 Cable Act, whose over-regulatory cable provisions stopped the industry in its tracks for at least a couple of years and delayed new services for consumers.

As one of the two Massachusetts congressmen, Barney Frank, pointed out in his release on the bill, "The 1996 [Telecommunications Act] promised consumers more choices and lower prices for cable television." According to the FCC, the number of channels has increased since 1996, and the cost of those additional channels has not even kept up with inflation. Looks like a non-starter from here.

Way to go

We were glad to see ABC renew fortysomething drama Once & Again. After taking the show to task a couple of weeks a go for a scene that troubled us, we were hoping we hadn't made it any easier to cancel than its less-than-worldbeating ratings already did. Sometimes the numbers don't tell the whole story.

We aren't sure whether Once & Again stuck around because it had a friend in a high place (Stu Bloomberg, who is a fan), or because TV Guide picked it for a cover story and plugged it hard as the best show nobody is watching, or because it is an in-house show (Touchstone and ABC are Disney-owned) and nursing it to enough episodes for syndication is in the company's interest (witness how many other new shows on ABC have that Touchstone touch). For whatever reason, and with apologies to the displaced Barbara Walters, we are glad to see that a well-acted, well-written drama about messy, complicated lives can still find a place on prime time network TV, even when its ratings give the network not only cover but some argument for yanking it. ABC can be proud of its show and of its decision.

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