What A Concept! Endless Infomercials That Cost Big Bucks To Watch!
By Jeff Smith
I TAKE PEN in hand...as the antiquarian correspondent used to say, to record a momentous event. Fifteen years ago today, today being last Friday, 10 minutes before deadline, as I fired up the computer to speed these musings to The Weekly, the City of Tucson embarked upon the rocky road to everything you ever wanted to watch on television, but were smart enough not to waste your money on.
Until now. Now being then. December 6, 1981. The day the City of Tucson awarded the first municipal cable television contract to Cox Cable.
Until Tucson, until the world got wired for cable TV, television was viewed--commonsensically, I think--as something you got for nothing and not too bad a deal at that price. True, you had to buy a machine to play it on, but the programming was stirring in the electrons that hummed through your air-space every second of the day, so you had the right to intercept and watch them. We had five or six local channels back then and that was really enough.
But enough is never enough in America, and smart people began putting more than enough in front of the American public--available exclusively via hard-wired cable systems at monthly fees sometimes exceeding the cost of your monthly mortgage payment--and of course we bought it. Not only bought it: We demanded that our local governments obtain even more of it for us. We bought the promise of better reception, more movies and sports, full frontal nudity. God, it would be worth a mere $350-a-month TV bill just to save the time, gasoline and rental money running to Blockbuster to rent videos.
Of course today the same sort of people whose monthly cable bill runs over $300 are still running to the video store on a nightly basis, and spending half of their pricey cable time watching home shopping networks and running up their credit card bills over the phone lines ordering limited edition gold-leaf plates with fat Elvis in Vegas jumpsuits spray-painted on them. Most of programs cable television has made available to us is useless junk. Essentially we have been conditioned by the cable industry to accept paying significant sums of money for the privilege of watching hour-long commercials.
What a great country.
It didn't start out this way. When cable started out in Tucson, Cox Cable's first corporate push was more along the lines of conditioning the local viewer and taxpayer to pay the cable bill and then pay his city taxes, for the privilege of watching Cox renege on its contractual obligations, point by point, and charging us increasingly higher fees for increasingly inferior service.
It was about this time that I came back into the journalistic workforce after my 120-mph encounter with a pine tree, and found myself writing columns about television. Which included the cable wars, in which Jan Lesher, the city's first cable administrator, was champion of the good guys. Unfortunately one of the bad guys was Jan's boss, then-city manager Joel Valdez, who was chummy with Tom Hildebrand, the manager of Cox Cable Tucson, and my boss, then-publisher Gerald "Guido" Garcia of the Tucson Citizen. Very bad guy. Jan and I became friends and consoled one another as we fought to improve the quality of local cable television and keep our jobs. In the long run we weren't able to do either, but then neither did Joel, Tom or Guido.
Well, here we are a decade and a half later and we're fighting the same battles and watching the same dreck we were at the jump. TCI is the fifth outfit to hold the local cable contract. They're in protracted wrangling with the city over terms of their renewal, and public access is still the red-headed orphan in the middle.
Last week the City Council unanimously passed a 2 percent sales tax on TCI's cable service revenues. TCI immediately said they were passing the tax along to the cable customers and that the city had thus assumed the sole responsibility for financing the operation of the public access channels, which Sam Behrend, executive director of Access Tucson, told me runs in the $850,000 range. The city said supporting public access is part of the deal for the local franchise, and will continue to be regarded as such during these contract renegotiations. Some fights never end.
At least, Behrend says, the fight is between the city and TCI. As for relations between public access and TCI, they've been cordial. Nice change. At least on a personal level they're cordial: On a fiscal level, don't expect miracles. Late last week the national news was that TCI, yielding to stockholder pressure for more money--the kids want Sega Genesis for Christmas--is laying-off 2,500 employees nationwide, amounting to about 7 percent of its work-force, and saving the company $100 million per annum.
So despite the fact that local revenues run around $32 million for TCI, don't expect largesse: they aren't in this for style points or karmic credit.
But then you don't really give a rat's ass about this anyway, do you?
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