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Backtalk: 1990 Vs. 1998

There was a disturbing, déjà vu air to "OperatorsPad Channel List to Pad Bills."

That was an article that was decidedly critical of thecable industry -- with few or no facts to support its myriad of unflattering allegations-- which appeared in the March 16 edition of USA Today.

That article immediately prompted Decker Anstrom, presidentof the National Cable Television Association, to fire off a letter to the editor thatpresented a more balanced picture of his industry. It appeared in its entirety the nextday in the paper.

The tone of last week's USA Today article wasnot unlike hard-to-forget pieces in The Wall Street Journal in the early 1990s thatroutinely bashed cable companies -- most notably Tele-Communications Inc., which manycable-industry people say actually deserved most of the bad ink that it was getting at thetime.

Those hard-hitting pieces ran at a time when congressmenwere preparing to wage -- and, shortly thereafter, to win -- a holy war to reregulate thecable industry with the enactment of the 1992 Cable Act.

With the appearance of last week's USA Todayarticle, several readers were privately worrying anew that history might repeat itselfwithin the Beltway.

After all, they reasoned that once again, we have a coupleof congressmen crusading for another round of cable reregulation and/or an extension ofthe March 31, 1999, sunset on existing regulation.

Personally, I don't think that their fears arewell-founded. But it's easy to understand where they're coming from, becausecable has had a devil of a time shedding its image of being a monopolistic,customer-unfriendly, back-stabbing behemoth.

But what a difference eight years can make and did make.Since the enactment of the reregulation bill, cable has done a lot of soul-searching, andit has cleaned up its act considerably.

This is a fact that has not gone unnoticed on the Hill andin the various sandboxes where the cable industry now plays well with others.

For starters, customer service has dramatically improvedvia industrywide programs such as the "On-Time Guarantee" and "Man in theTrenches," the latter being a program where cable's top executives man the frontlines to interact with their customers and employees.

Reregulation and the advent of competition wised cable upto the fact that best practices meant happy customers who would not flee to new servicesthat were springing up everywhere.

And cable -- which, in 1990, had a reputation as being anarrogant, lone wolf, insiders-welcome-only club -- today finds itself better-allied with awide array of overlapping groups.

Those groups range from the Motion Picture Association ofAmerica to the PTA -- just two of a handful of groups that had coalesced with others tosupport cable reregulation back in 1990.

Together, they all succeeded in pulverizing and settingback the cable industry, causing many hard-line operators to exit the business altogether.

Today, eight years later, those two groups are working withcable, and not against it.

For example, Anstrom just won the PTA's prestigious"President's Award for Outstanding Child Advocacy" for his unstinting workin working with parents and teachers with critical-viewing workshops and Cable in theClassroom, and for cooperating with the TV-ratings initiative.

That award is not typically doled out totrade-industry-association presidents, with past recipients being household names such asSecretary of Education Richard Riley and Tipper Gore.

Cable in 1998 is hardly the whipping boy of Congress thatit was in 1990, when it was a piece of cake for the Democratic majority to find plenty ofsupporters for the bill.

This go around, sources insist that there is very littleanti-cable support among the Republican majority, which favors deregulation andcompetition.

Our inside-the-Beltway sources tell us that most electedofficials recognize the fact that cable now has at least the initial stirrings ofcompetition, and that the industry is responding appropriately to it.

So, is reregulation a possibility? Sure, but that'sonly if cable forgets the hard-learned lessons of the past eight years.