During the early 1980s, cable television was portrayed locally as Satan's Workshop, the home of sex, perversion and Australian Rules Football. In some prominent circles, subscribing to cable was seen as a social sin - sort of like burning tires in your backyard, or stockpiling nuclear waste in your basement.
Not coincidentally, cable penetration rates in Utah were lower than in any other state.Today Utah still lags behind the rest of the nation in cable penetration (about 40 percent of Utah homes are wired for cable, as compared to a national average of 57 percent), but local acceptance of the entertainment technology is at an all-time high. And so is local concern over issues facing the cable industry and cable subscribers nation-wide.
-SYNDICATED EXCLUSIVITY: Sounds kind of scary, doesn't it? But it isn't - especially not for Utah cable television operators, according to Mindy Jeffries of TCI Cablevision of Utah.
"Syndicated Exclusivity" (more commonly referred to as Syndex) is an FCC ruling that cable companies to black out syndicated programs on cable stations that are supposed to be airing exclusively in a local market on a local station.
For example, Chicago Superstation WGN carries the syndicated "Night Court" package, as does Utah's KTVX. If KTVX has exclusivity written into its "Night Court" contract, and if KTVX chooses to ask local cable companies to black out WGN's showing of the sitcom, the cable companies must do so even if the two stations aren't playing the program opposite each other. In fact, they must do so even if KTVX weren't actually playing "Night Court" at the time. If the local station has exclusivity, the cable company has no choice but to black out the series.
The same policies apply in areas where cable companies carry network programs from different markets. For example, Jeffries said, TCI is struggling with cable systems in Montana where Salt Lake City's network affiliates are carried along with the local affiliate stations. In those cases, exclusivity belongs to the local stations, creating some problems for cable companies there.
Fortunately, Jeffries added, Syndex hasn't had much impact on programming Utah cable outlets.
"The rules only apply to distant broadcast stations like TBS and WGN, and TBS has been working toward exclusivity itself," she said. "So WGN is really the only station we have that has any problems, and so far I haven't heard of any requests from Utah television stations to black out anything on WGN."
Which tells you something about the way cable has evolved during the past decade. Ten years ago Syndex would have had a major impact on cable television because most of the product being carried on most of the services was off-network reruns. Today cable is producing so many of its own programs or buying syndicated programs and packages with exclusivity in mind that the effects of Syndex nation-wide will be minimal.
-RATE HIKE: Of course, there is a down side to all of this cable exclusivity. It costs more. And that, according to Jeffries, is the reason behind TCI's 5 percent rate hike that will go into effect for all of its Utah customers in January.
"Cable programming costs are up almost 300 percent in the past three years," Jeffries said, choosing her words carefully. "Of course, those costs are incurred by the cable programmers, but they pass those costs on to us. We're able to absorb most of the cost increase, but we felt we had to ask our customers for a little help in making cable service available to them."
But what about all those new customers TCI picked up as a result of its recent "Cable Amnesty" program, during which folks who were "stealing" cable services without paying for them were encouraged to sign up for cable legitimately - no questions asked? Won't 7,000 new subscribers in Utah help defray some of those increased costs all by themselves?
"Sure, it'll help," Jeffries said. "There's no question that we're doing very well in Utah these days. But you have to remember all those years when we struggled here. We've got a lot of ground to make up."
-EXPANDED BASIC SERVICE: Still, Jeffries said TCI is offering its customers a new option to help them keep their cable bill down somewhat. It's called "Expanded Basic Service," in which a tier of cable services can be eliminated in order to trim - get your calculators out, folks - 40 cents from your bill.
"It's not that these services are considered extras," Jeffries said. "They're still a part of our basic cable service, which is going to cost everyone $17.95 a month. But we want to give people the option of saving a little by eliminating those services."
The services included in the Expanded Basic package, by the way, are ESPN, AMC, USA, TNT, PSN and Arts & Entertainment. So by eliminating some of the best reasons for taking cable television, you can save enough money in just three months to buy one Sunday edition of the Deseret News. And still have 20 cents left over!
Even Jeffries acknowledges that it's sort of a silly proposition. But she claims that it helps keep the programmers happy, and it forces them to keep their programming standards up by knowing that subscribers can eliminate them if they aren't satisfied with the service.
Besides, she noted, local AMC fans are really getting a bargain at 40 cents. Cable subscribers in Phoenix and other areas around the country have to pay around $9.95 a month to get American Movie Classics as a pay cable service. "Things like this have a way of balancing out," Jeffries said.
-OTHER CABLE NOTES:
- Jeffries said the amnesty program will continue "at least through 1990." But now the program is heavily into its enforcement phase.
"We'll be going from neighborhood to neighborhood," she said. "When we find someone who is connected to cable but isn't on our billing lists, we will disconnect them."
The way she said "disconnect" sounded . . . well, almost painful. So look out, folks. The cable police are coming.
- Davis County subscribers who have been waiting for TCI to bring A & E to its cable package will only have to wait a little while longer. "We're authorized to provide the service now," Jeffries said. "We're just waiting to get all the necessary equipment in place."
- No word yet on when - or if - TCI will carry one of the two new all-comedy cable services. "That decision is made at our national offices," Jeffries said.
- TCI's holiday campaign to raise money for Utah schools "went wonderfully," Jeffries said. By donating $5 for each new cable hookup during the holiday season, TCI expects to write a check for about $30,000 to the Utah Public Education Foundation.