This month Congress has the option of siding with consumers or the cable industry. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), would require local governments to certify a local consumer group comprised of cable viewers. This group would help fight high cable rates and poor service on behalf of cable subscribers, who are currently under-represented in the regulatory process. The consumer representation provision of the legislation will empower cable consumers to fight skyrocketing cable rates at the local level. And given the bill’s emphasis on providing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), rather than local governments, with exclusive authority to determine maximum cable rates, an independent consumer group working on cable issues is needed.
Unlike inadequately funded and understaffed government consumer offices, these consumer groups would be controlled and funded by cable subscribers. The subscribers would voluntarily pay a small annual membership fee to become members and they would elect its board of directors. No government or industry funds would be used to finance the organization. It would be independent from government and the cable companies.
Subscribers would be informed on how to become a member of the consumer group through periodic notices in the monthly subscriber cable bill.
Today, cable subscribers are locked out of a process that disproportionately favors the monopoly cable industry. A 1990 report by the FCC shows that cable is a monopoly. Indeed, the cable industry is dominated by a handful of giant media
conglomerates. For example, the FCC report found that the two largest cable operators, Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) and Time-Warner, own cable systems that account for over a third of all cable subscribers in the United States. In addition, the report found that the four largest cable operators own cable systems that account for 52 percent of subscribers. Given the cable industry’s obsession with fattening the bottom line, it is no surprise that cable rates have increased beyond the rate of inflation. A July 1991 study by the General Accounting Office found that from November 1986 to April 1991, the lowest priced cable service increased by an average of 56 percent. The most popular basic service showed a higher increase of 61 percent. From December 31, 1989 to April 1, 1991, the monthly rates for the lowest priced basic service increased by 9 percent. According to a Teledemocracy Project survey, in Los Angeles, basic cable rates increased by 175 percent during 1990 while basic cable rates in St. Louis increased by 162 percent.
The only difference between cable and other monopolies is that abusive, non-competitive cable rates are permitted under current law. Rarely have such monopolistic price increases been permitted by Congress, which deregulated the cable industry in 1984. Without a major push by cable subscribers, this conproposal will perish and consumers will remain powerless to fight abusive cable practices, such as excessive monthly fees for remote control devices and converter boxes.
Cable subscribers who want better treatment from their cable company should contact their Member of Congress to urge support for Rep. Markey’s consumer representation provision.
Establishing cable consumer groups controlled by cable subscribers upholds core democratic principles that the unregulated monopolists in the cable industry oppose. Both conservatives and liberals can support this provision because it promotes voluntary citizen involvement and does not require tax dollars. The creation of a public, democratically controlled, subscriber-funded, membership association of cable television subscribers is the most effective way to enhance the representation of consumer, minority and local community interests in the cable television industry and to meet the needs of cable consumers. This mechanism to facilitate the banding-together of cable viewers is the least Congress can do given the vast privileges and immunities accorded the cable industry by lawmakers.
For more information on this consumer proposal, write to the Teledemocracy Project, P.O. Box 19405, Washington, D.C. 20036.