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Cable Television: Will Boston Prove Pacesetter for the '80s?

By Jeffrey E. Seifert

In the 1920s, New York let Robert Moses reshape the urban landscape by creating the parkway and the superhighway. Others imitated that city's highway system, whatever its flaws, because Moses had designed the first successful plans to move cars through a metropolis.

Richard Borton, an aide to Boston Mayor Kevin White, has a chance to be another Moses. As chief planner for the implementation of cable television in the Massachusetts capital. Borton wants to provide the nation with a model program for this burgeoning technology. His vision could make Boston the trend-setter New York was more than 50 years ago.

Since the Supreme Court ruled last year that the federal government could not regulate cable television, cities have been allowed to set their own standards for the private transmission service. Experts believe cable could someday become a means of unifying and streamlining communities by providing more efficient, pertinent local programming. But few city halls have demonstrated the sophistication needed to manage cable, and many have avoided the challenge altogether. Borton predicts that whoever devises a convenient means of implementing cable will be responsible for bringing the computer age into the American home.

Realizing that his model for Boston may set important precedents. Borton has emphasized the need for local cable to carry primarily local programs rather than shows produced by nation-wide companies. He has argued that Boston residents should have a say in who eventually has the right to control the city's private television. Several companies have already made bids for Boston's cable franchise, and Mayor White is expected to announce a decision this year.

Some of the guidelines Borton has established for cable in Boston include:

* Requiring the cable service to pass on three to four per cent of its gross profit from subscriber fees to a Public Access Corporation separate from the city of Boston. This money would provide equipment and facilities for a public video system, including funds for "neighborhood studios."

* Reserving at least 20 per cent of transmission capability for the Public Access Corporation.

* Establishing a separate cable network exclusively for public institutions, so Boston's colleges, public schools, hospitals, and neighborhoods will have convenient video links.

These regulations have prompted observers such as The New York Times to call Boston's scrutiny of the cable industry "the toughest in the nation so far." Today, only two of the nine bidders who expressed interest in buying the Boston franchise remain in the running, in part because of Boston's rigorous oversight.

Boston's cable czar wants more than detail; he seeks a system that will evolve with technological changes without requiring the city to undertake vast excavation or construction projects. Not that he's thinking small. Proposals under consideration include plans for at least 100 channels available for video transmission--64 more than any existing municipal system.

The two companies still in the bidding for the Boston franchise--Warner Amex and Cablevision--say they want the contract here for their "track record" to bid for future projects across the country. Sheila Mahony, vice president of Cablevision, says her company is "anxious" to work with Boston because the city's system is "already precedent-setting." And Borton, the man setting those precedents in hopes of making Boston an example for the nation, is anxious to see his ideas in action.CrimsonAmanda E. Well

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