Thou shall not steal television: signal theft in the age of information

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Author: Tim Anderson
Date: Fall 1995
Publisher: University of Texas at Austin (University of Texas Press)
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,388 words

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CABLE TELEVISION'S ESTABLISHMENT WITHIN American culture is, in some respects, so firm that it has acquired the importance of a household utility. And like household utility payments, cable payments are made by many with little debate. The cable bill is the necessary ticket to significant participation in mainstream U.S. television culture. To eliminate cable from one's televisual diet is to forfeit control over how one decides to participate within television culture. Without cable services, television consumers lose the autonomy accorded to those who can afford to purchase the privileges of choice. This supposed unleashing of the individual from the nondiscriminating, top-down reins of institutional control is as much a theme for the promotion of cable television as it is for any libertarian politic. Certainly the cable industry has hinted in its advertisements that one of the reasons American viewers subscribe to cable is to free themselves from the shackles of broadcast networks that have controlled the nation's viewing for almost fifty years and their less-than-exciting fares. By offering customers what seems to be an ever-expanding palette of programming, the cable television industry has continually emphasized the issue of individual choice and freedom.

This rhetoric is amplified by a majority of today's forecasts of the impending destruction of television as we know it in the wake of new technologies. Not only will there be access to seemingly limitless amounts of information and entertainment, but television will reach a new summit of "freedom" through the development of "interactive" programming. In accordance with this rhetoric, our digital computer/television monitors of the all-too-near future promise to provide connections to the oncoming information superhighway and allow us to mobilize our voices into liberal pluralities of on-line communities to engage in public debate.

But as the benefits of the information superhighway have been couched in the promotion of numerous democratic activities, a number of contra dictions have arisen. While the 103rd Congress continued to support the language, if not the spirit, of "universal service" with written legislation, (1) some government officials have noted that the information superhighway will indeed pass the poor and head straight to the communities that can afford to log on. Vice President Gore has celebrated the civic nature of this new telecommunications infrastructure, proclaiming that the network will be "as accessible and as open and as democratic and as ubiquitous as the telephone network." However, anyone who has ever received a phone bill might wish to question any rhetoric that utilizes the term "democracy" to describe the existing telephone networks in the United States. It isn't one's status as an American citizen that allows one to telephone one's neighbor, family, or boss. It is one's ability to purchase this service. Systems of two-way communications in the United States have always been privileges afforded to those who are willing and able to purchase them. Indeed, the undemocratic nature of telephone services becomes even more evident when one considers the all-too-recent history of their apparently unjust distribution on the global scale. (2)

But unlike telephone services, television has typically been thought of as a "free" medium in the United States. All one had to do was invest in the receiver and the programming would arrive freely onto the screen. Of course, this, too, is an illusion. American audiences have always paid for their "free" television through increased prices of many consumer goods to cover the cost of advertising (3) and/or they have been exploited through their commodification and sale by networks to advertisers. (4) Nevertheless, the idea that viewers must or should directly pay for television has been a site of substantial tension in the United States. Although there were several experiments in creating television systems subsidized by direct payments in earlier periods of television history, this concept realized no true success until the development of cable. As long as cable has been a medium supported by subscriber fees, it has been a site for anxieties between the commonly held notion that television should be "free" as long as the airwaves are a public trust and the competing notion that television services are a consumable privilege that is typically purchased on a monthly basis.

This tension has been manifested through the issue of "signal theft" or, as it is most commonly referred to in the United States, "cable theft." As an element of the myth of future television services, industrial concerns have defined signal theft as a necessary site of anxiety. Indeed, this anxiety will and must be maintained as a discursive support for the profitable development of promised televisual technologies. Many of us take the language of cable theft or "video piracy" for granted. However, upon reflection we might consider that any demand to conflate the acts of "viewing television" and "theft" is inconsistent with earlier viewing practices to the point of being absurd. It is this historical change that we need to investigate.

One historical note that is typically ignored when "free" U.S. broadcast systems of television are mentioned is that these systems flourished in an era of postwar affluence. This increase in national wealth corresponded to the ability of U.S.-based capital to expand Fordist principles of production and accumulation to an apex as U.S. industries claimed new markets that had been opened through foreign policy development strategized during World War II and carried out in the form of the Cold War. The historical expansion and definition of television services cannot be separated from this economic regime.

However, Fordist systems of capital have been systematically dismantled in the last twenty years in favor of a new, more flexible mode of post-Fordist accumulation. "Capitalism," to quote David Harvey, "is growth oriented, rests on the exploitation of living labor in production and is necessarily organizationally and technologically dynamic." (5) In Fordist regimes, regional centers of overaccumulation were designed to blossom into highly competitive economies of scale. The concentration of raw materials collected from other global regions produced mass goods and a regional distribution of wealth that allows these commodities to be sold to the industrial workers who produced them. According to Harvey, the success of Fordist industrial regimes was contingent upon their abilities to solve crises of overaccumulation through the continual spatial and temporal displacement of industry, labor, and capital. (6)

But overaccumulation produced a number of sys temic crises for capitalist economies. Inflation, labor crises, and debt can, and often do, result from having too many fixed capital assets in one region. For Fordism the threats were numerous: prices soared; labor in developed regions succeeded in obtaining significant improvements in wages and on-the-job safety via regional and international organization; and multiple state initiatives that provided systems of social insurance and services were created. As a resuit, capital systematically responded through a series of moves that made it much more mobile, resulting in the formation of a flexible regime of post-Fordist accumulation. It solved the continual crisis of overaccumulation and stagnation through reforming the basic strategies of procuring profits, that is, surplus value. One of these strategies involves "the extension of the working day relative to the wage needed to guarantee working-class reproduction at a given standard of living." This includes the implementation of longer working hours as well as a reduction in the standard of living either through the deterioration of wages, moving the industrial centers of corporate capital production from "high-wage regions" to territories with cheaper pools of wage labor, or both. (7) This should come as no shock to residents of the United States, who have witnessed real wages plummet and the opportunities to work in full-time, forty-hour-a-week jobs complete with benefits disappear in the last twenty or so years. Harvey also notes that in the current post-Fordist economy sweatshops and everything that accompanies them (extended workdays, low pay, lack of overtime, the desired employment of women and children within the labor force, etc.) have enjoyed a revitalization within the urban sectors of America. (8)

But the post-Fordist extension of the workday does not belong only to sweatshops. Other sites have also been developed for more flexible production and extraction. One of these has been the organization of point-to-point television distribution systems. As capital has transformed its regime of accumulation television has also been rearranged, and as Stephen Heath has noted, the industrial practice of broadcasting now exists as an institutional anachronism in advanced capitalist societies. (9) There are two main motivations flowing out of the logic of postFordist accumulation that shape the reformation of television: the point-to-point control of signals not only can be better managed as a system for the direct procurement of profits where signals are sold but also as a system allowing for the further mobility of data from multiple areas of production and management. With this logic it becomes clear that televi sion viewers who at one time received television signals for free and who are now paying for one-way point-to-point televisual fares may, in the future, be purchasing signals not only for entertainment but to enable them to work.

Although the initial formation of point-to-point television systems such as cable did not progress with these intentions, they have offered a template for the fulfillment of this logic in the near future. The earliest cable systems in the United States were developed for the express purpose of accessing programming that would not have been available due to geographical impediments, (10) As cable developed its system to capture distant signals, independent stations could specialize in sports, reruns, and other programming choices for the cable market. Within the last twenty years the desire to access further, distant signals has been both paralleled and created by the development of technologies and programming to satisfy these cravings. The developments in satellite communications, "superstations," transnational, (11) and niche programming have helped establish cable systems as desirable investments for communities and individual viewers alike. Recent estimates hold that as of 1992 cable television wires passed 97 percent of households in the United States. (12) Certainly the cultural ubiquity of cable has, in the eyes of industry leaders such as John Malone of Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), begun to make this form of point-to-point communication and data delivery a threat to the telecommunication empires of the "Baby Bells." (13)

The industrial conflict between the cable and phone industries begins to make sense when one considers the severity of the economic stakes involved. In this competition there will be no greater treasure than the future market of in-home telecomputers, and the development of digital, high definition television (HDTV) systems is key to unlocking the treasure chest. The American-based electronics companies comprising the FCC-approved "Grand Alliance" have already pooled the patents that will be involved in the production of HDTV. The key to this development is the insistence upon digital systems of transmission and distribution. The alliance of state and capital will not only provide a financial windfall for both the producers and distributors of consumer electronics and entertainment softwares but, more important, force the technological union of computer and televisual capabilities through the cross-breeding of these technologies. In fact, it is the efficiency of digital systems that will rearrange the nature of televisual programming.

Part of this technological change will involve the simultaneous and systematic fusion of information and entertainment. The development of these infotainment systems will result in "interactive" televisual services. As a result, the personal tastes of the infotainment consumer may indeed be better served. However, in welcoming the interactive cable into their home, consumers will also participate in an effort to extend the information workplace into new spatial and temporal territory. These developments have been accompanied by a large amount of rhetoric produced to proclaim their benefits. As the director of marketing and new business development for AT&T Virtual Office Solutions put it in a recent issue of Business Week, telecommunication technologies permit "the virtual office [to operate as] a business strategy that allows people to work wherever and whenever they work best," anytime, anywhere. (14) Certainly many elements of this logic have already been accepted as a necessary aspect of everyday life: not only have fax machines and computer modems helped make the private sphere of the home a site of labor, but cellular phones allow for communication with the office as one commutes both to and from "work"; and the once "free time" of travel and vacation has been colonized by the rise of the laptop.

We should not forget that this extension of the worksite (and the workday) has been greatly anticipated and created through a logic of capital desiring ever more substantial profits. Capitalism has consistently understood the effects and advantages attained by making labor informal or illegitimate. The virtual office and the new sweatshops are merely different expressions of the same post-Fordist principles. The potency of capitalism is heightened as in-home work and play are synthesized into an ever more flexible and mobile mode of production/ extraction. Telecommunication companies will not only enable this process but will also provide a managerial function as a de facto tollkeeper. Indeed, to step onto the information superhighway one not only must acquire the hardware necessary to access the desired onramps but continually pay a fee to receive the deliveries of information and entertainment. The in-home customers/workers will be compelled to purchase access to their virtual offices as signals become more and more valuable. Directly related to this growth, the management of what signals are delivered over these services and who receives them will also be a necessary site of immense concern. With the arrival of new telecomputer technologies, future modes of extraction and exploitation in domestic space will become much more intense. Certainly, there is no place like home.

But this institutional desire to create a home that is simultaneously a twenty-four-hour-a-day space of consumption and employment has also met with the need to define these signals as properties that can be owned, purchased, and, most important, stolen. Involved in this redefining process is insuring that those who disagree that television signals are property should recognize themselves as thieves who are taking what does not belong to them. Simultaneously, this process has compromised the status of signal theft as a "purely" resistant practice. Although there has been something of an underground swell in organized signal pirates industrious enough to both develop technologies that steal signals and profit through their sales, I wish to argue that it is uncertain whether or not this is a productive act of resistance to institutional power. On the face of it, this refusal to capitulate to institutional desires may seem to be a rational reaction that "makes do" and gives the thief a feeling of empowerment. But practices of theft and piracy are rhetorically contained within the dominant discourses of property and value. That is, the resistance of the signal thief or pirate does not oppose the discourse valuing signals as property but is enabled by it.

Yet the practice of theft is substantially different from piracy. Thieves transgress reified spatial relations and orders. Thieves "break in"; they place themselves into private arenas and remove properties they do not own. Pirates, on the other hand, exist dialectically within the process of defining spatial connections. Specifically, the practice of piracy threatens the safe circulation of commodities through spatial territories not yet secured by institutional powers. Piracy intentionally ignores institutionalized civilities as it continually places control of property and territory not only in jeopardy materially but in constant question discursively. Although this practice must be continually challenged by both state and capital, liberal capitalists can do nothing but admire the defiance of these nomads in the face of institutionalized systems of power. Pirates act as both scavengers who feed themselves on the necessary excesses of international trading and assailants who capitalize on essential sites of organized transaction, travel, and extraction.

In one sense, the territorial dimension of piracy explains why the practice of "signal piracy" has become a seemingly ubiquitous form of in-home contestation. Libertarian in nature, signal pirates question and debate the issues surrounding the domains of transmission and reception through their claims and activities. As one self-proclaimed pirate involved in the creation of decoders that translate scrambled signals recently stated: "The airwaves should belong to the people. If a TV signal comes trespassing onto my property, I should be free to do any damn thing I want with it, and it's none of the government's business." (15) In this case, the issue is whether or not individuals should be able to collect the signals that stream onto their property without institutional consent. In other words, these so-called pirates wish free access to their cultural surroundings, even if that includes signals that happen to cross their path or stray into their homes.

But the telecommunication industry's campaign against signal piracy works to frame the question of legitimate access within a rhetoric of theft instead of a debate concerning the territorial control of the spectrum. Use of the term "theft" demands the systematic acceptance of social contracts that define a multitude of terms and spaces. The unpaid viewing of cable and satellite signals must be defined as an illicit practice, lest it contradict the social contracts demanded by post-Fordist capital. Specifically, the unpaid viewing of cable and satellite signals must be defined not simply as an illicit practice but as an illicit practice that can occur in the most private of spaces, such as the home. However, there seems to be an apparent incongruity involved in equating a form of viewing television with theft. This stems partially from the habitual viewing of "free" broadcast signals involved in, at the bare minimum, servicing the public. Unlike cable, which has framed both its medium of delivery and signals as private properties, the spectrum has traditionally been regarded as a public trust that can be appropriated or auctioned off with the consent and governance of the state. The problem for the cable industry is that many viewers do not recognize this difference. As one industry worker has pointed out, "People tend to laugh about stealing cable TV signals." (16)

Not surprisingly, cable companies don't appreciate the joke. As early as 1978, Business Week reported that substantial financial losses were being felt due to the practice of cable theft. (17) Although no one person or agency knew for certain how many households actually enjoyed cable signals without paying for them, these reports estimated that industrial losses from this activity totaled $50 million annually with some 2 million households participating in this secretive act. (18) The uncertainty involved in attempting to discover who is and who isn't a signal thief has continued to plague the industry. Because most theft is done in private spaces like the home, prosecution has been difficult. This difficulty is further amplified by the fact that techniques of theft vary from site to site. Many viewers continue to receive the delivery of basic cable services after they have ended their subscriptions, while others have purchased descramblers and even wrapped aluminum foil around cable wires to receive pay-TV signals for free. Also threatening the pay-TV industry are white-collar criminals who act as illicit for-profit freelancers, making illegal connections their business. Many times these freelancers turn out to be employees of cable companies who not only ignore orders to disconnect nonpaying customers in exchange for one-time, under-the-table payments from formerly legal subscribers but illegally connect new nonsubscribers in the same manner. (19) In some cases, the telecommunications industry has turned to the legislative apparatus in order to gain legitimacy from the state in fulfilling its desire to redefine signals as property. Yet despite legislation in many states designating these practices as crimes involving telecommunications property ("telefelonies," as one Showtime official has asserted (20)), the signal leaks have continued to spring.

By 1984 the cable television industry had estimated that signal theft had become a $500 million per year problem. (21) By 1986 the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) had increased loss estimates to between $700 million and $1 billion per year, (22) only to be surpassed seven years later by estimates of annual national losses approaching $4.7 billion. (23) The validity of these claims is not certain. And while the cable industry has nothing to lose and everything to gain from exaggerating these figures as far as gaining publicity for its cause, one thing is clear: the importance of cable signals has greatly escalated.

This loss of potential revenues has inspired an organized attempt to educate both the industry and the public about the so-called illicit and dangerous nature of signal theft. In 1984 the Coalition Against Signal Theft (CAST), an ad hoc group formed by pay and basic programming services, major cable companies, studios, and hardware manufacturers, was created to address this problem. The most important function of the organization was to act as both a "clearinghouse for information" and a lobby for the enforcement of laws preventing signal piracy. (24) By 1986 the lobby's name had been changed to the Coalition Opposing Signal Theft (COST). (25) The new acronym served to remind the broader communication industry that signal theft not only cost cable companies but represented a threat to anyone with interests in controlling the distribution of telecommunication signals. "The industry has to realize that piracy is piracy," was the thought of COST director James Allen. (26)

Although the cable industry has been able to organize around this issue and begin to convince those involved in the production and distribution of signals that signal theft is a severe menace, they have had less success in convincing cable viewers. Redefining signal proprieties requires not only designating signals as property through the systematic creation and enforcement of copyright legislation but also changing the rhetorical practices surrounding proper cable consumption. Potential signal consumers must understand and acknowledge that they may no longer simply "view" television. Instead, they will be addressed as and must become signal consumers. Consumerism negotiates a discourse of privileges, rights, and luxuries that are available to those who can afford them. To accept this model with regard to the viewing of television is to accept a system of ethics, whereby the reception of information is allotted to those who legitimately participate within the system of exchange.

The attempt to induce viewers into their "proper" positions within a consumer economy of television viewing has been, by far, the leading approach made by the cable industry to solve the problem of theft. As one cable executive put it, "We don't want to prosecute anyone [who is stealing cable]. We want them to become paying customers. We will gladly sell it to them." (27) But the fact that many people have continued their "bad habit" of watching cable television for free has convinced the cable industry of the necessity to educate viewers that cable theft "is no different from stealing stuff with two hands." (28) Indeed, elaborate public relations campaigns have been created to ensure that the point is understood. The most popular form of these campaigns has been the creation of amnesty periods, whereby those who have been wittingly or unwittingly stealing cable can "come clean," quit their crimes, begin a cable subscription, and suffer no prosecution for past indiscretions. (29) 1993 was a banner year for the establishment of such campaigns. Cable companies in the Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Chicago (30) areas were among those who granted amnesty to viewers who had become convinced of their status as signal thieves, not pirates, and decided to become cable consumers.

To be sure, the cable industry desires to limit the terms of debate to a system of binary logic involving only "cable thieves" and "cable consumers" with no other available positions. In Tampa the local cable company carried commercials starring John Walsh, the host and producer of the popular "reality" crime television program, America's Most Wanted, which attempted to cultivate the fear of imminent prosecution by persuading cable thieves to "turn themselves in and start paying for cable without the fear of being prosecuted" during this period. (31) In another example, a cable company in New Orleans was more direct as it flashed a message of "Thou Shall Not Steal," across the screen of those receiving signals. The New Orleans campaign also included an "educational" motive, as the company continually announced the social "consequences" of cable theft, that is, higher rates and possible prosecution, and the chance for rehabilitation that the time period offered. (32)

Humorous as the examples may seem, these institutional strategies are of vital importance in the reconfiguration of the television viewer. Amnesty exists as a strategic period of potential organization, whereby hierarchical and discursive formations may be (re)arranged. By accepting amnesty, consumers enter into an agreement to respect television signals as property. The "proper" signal consumer understands and accepts that televisual services, particularly entertainment programming, must be purchased and that viewing is no longer a right but a privilege. Periods of amnesty attempt to guarantee that potential and already converted television consumers continue to recognize the legitimacy as well as the necessity of purchasing signals.

The amnesty periods are not so much alternatives to prosecution as much as necessary programs dedicated to transforming and reproducing the practice of viewing as a site of consumption. By structurally providing an opportunity for signal thieves to acknowledge their illegal activities, these periods allow confessions of guilt to be coerced and/or given and offer pardons to those thieves who have been properly rehabilitated. In these cases there is no attempt to punish the thief. Instead, the companies work toward convincing the cable thief of his or her culpability, forwarding the legitimation process without the assessment of "penalties." Through this process, cable companies succeed not only in halting the activity but in allowing the "thief" to recognize the "true nature" of his or her behavior through the act of confession. As Michel Foucault explains, The confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply an interlocutor but the authority who requires

   The confession, prescribes, and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to
   judge, punish, console, and reconcile; a ritual in which the truth is
   corroborated by the obstacles and resistances it has had to surmount in
   order to be formulated; and finally, a ritual in which the expression
   alone, independently of its external consequences, produces intrinsic
   modifications in the person who articulates it: it exonerates, redeems, and
   purifies him; it unburdens him of his wrongs, liberates him, and promises
   him salvation. (33)

The confession articulates an "emancipation" of the speaking subject through his or her willful and earnest acceptance of the power relationship and the claims made within the hierarchical formation. Although Foucault places his analytical emphasis on how the confession operates as a necessary mechanism for the continual production and reproduction of "sexuality as a technology of the body," this model, as Mimi White has pointed out, should not be limited to this specific application. (34) Confession and therapy assist in the production and reproduction of numerous other discourse formations and social behaviors. According to White, this model provides a means of understanding contemporary U.S. television culture and its function in the generation of social discourses and knowledge, "implicated in constructions of family and consumer culture." Specifically, the televisual narratives that White examines situate "self-identity and social recognition within familial and consumer networks [that] hinge on the process of mediated confession." (35)

Just as telecommunications have "freely" distributed an ideology of consumerism by programming therapeutic narratives, they have also been able to exploit the same narrative strategies of the confession in order to bring viewers into a new economic regime of pay-TV. Within the process of the social text, where television exists as a vital and active participant, telecommunications industries have mobilized particular narrative strategies designed to define the practice of unauthorized viewing as a crime. Amnesty, and the confessional space it develops, provides an opportunity for thieves to come forward, admit wrongdoings, and be cured. Without the continual process of confession, the willful submission of the subject to the system of televisual propriety cannot be ensured. Both actual and potential consumers must understand the consequences of their practices and the differences between theft and signal consumption or they pose a perpetual hazard to unconsciously become pirates who attempt to rearticulate spatial relations.

This strategy is not always successful. Despite the educational process, there exists numerous television viewers who are comfortable stealing signals. Though the cable industry is explicit about their desire to convince thieves to turn themselves in, the same industry has made several highly publicized attempts to capture and prosecute those who continue to pilfer signals. In most cases of prosecution these signal pirates have been smaller entrepreneurs, specifically bars and restaurants who routinely offer television to their clientele, illegally presenting premier events such as pay-per-view sport competitions. (36) In fact, these events have supplied an extremely effective bait to catch these nonconsumers who claim sovereignty over their televisual space. During different premier boxing matches, regional cable companies in Los Angeles and Hartford, Connecticut, generated a signal that could not be decoded by standard cable boxes but was decodable by cable boxes utilized for illicit descrambling. (37) In each sting operation, the coded signal offered a commemorative T-shirt, available only to those viewing the fight. Callers willingly surrendered their phone numbers and addresses to cable company operators posing as helpful agents. In Hartford those who ordered the shirt were mailed letters demanding back payments for services rendered and threatening prosecution for cable theft if the thieves did not surrender information regarding how they were. viewing the cablecast. (38) The reports from Los Angeles noted that a local cable company involved in the campaign physically disconnected the homes of viewers who replied and then attempted to turn these "illegals" into consumers. (39) Again, the cable industry's main concerns are discursive and cultural. Although it has prosecuted small businesses, the cable industry has not sought to punish individual viewers but t:o convince them to become legitimate consumers by publicizing the threat of prosecution.

While consumer stings have punished some and frightened others, the problem of signal theft is nowhere close to being solved. Even with several highly publicized busts and indictments of those involved in the manufacture and distribution of illegal descrambling decoders, "black boxes" still pose a large problem for cable companies. Once these black boxes are sold they become difficult to detect. As the decoders enter the home, both cable and satellite television industries encounter a significant barrier in locating their existence. The signal providers have., publicized the lack of legal grounding needed to enter the homes of suspected thieves and, as a result, their chances of discovering if a household is illegally descrambling signals is diminished significantly, or so they claim. (40) But even if this problem could be countered through giving the cable companies license to investigate the homes of cable thieves the costs involved would be more than significant and in some cases prohibitive.

This does not mean that cable companies have not discovered a method for capturing cable thieves. The publicity regarding the problem has almost always stressed the implications this practice has for honest, paying consumers. According to the cable industry, cable theft, just like the social ill of shoplifting, results in significant losses, which are then passed on to the cable subscribers in the form of subscription rate hikes. (41) Consumers are encouraged to view their neighbor's cable theft not only as a breach of the social contract but as something that harms their pocketbook. As one TCI official has pointed out, it is the acceptance of this ideal that enables many cable companies to make some headway against in-home piracy:

   We don't like to consider ourselves a police unit or any kind of an
   investigative unit where we're going to start monitoring people's houses.
   The way you find out about these things is when someone who is paying for
   cable visits a neighbor's house and finds out they're using an illegal box.
   They're pretty upset that they're paying for cable and the neighbor isn't,
   so sometimes we get a tip. (42)

If cable companies cannot rely on thieves entering into confessional relations, they hope to convince the individual consumer of the social benefits involved in snitching.

That the consumer may act as a potential source of social management and administration should not be ignored. The managerial power of alwayspossible surveillance is essential for the control of the body politic. It is absolutely imperative that the body politic understands the possibility that these acts of surveillance, judgment, and punishment can and may be executed at any time or the managerial strategy loses much of its force.

Yet the power of the panoptic apparatus comes not from a singular physical site of omniscient capabilities. Panopticism operates through the efficient production of apparatuses of the self. Management is effective precisely because it doesn't have to observe every action one takes or levy violence for every mistake one makes. Indeed, the power of panopticism resides in not knowing if and when one is being observed. This indeterminacy effectively forces the managed classes to continually observe and judge their own actions and habits, as well as the actions and habits of others, under the fear that they may be scrutinized and punished at any moment. (43) The "self-interest" of the proper consumer demands that they remain alert and ever-vigilant at their post. According to the accepted logic, any violation that may harm themselves and the purchasing community must be reported, or the community will suffer. Even though the industry has purportedly created technologies that detect "signal leaks," (44) the signal consumer who acts as a paying customer, fears the possibility of being detected, and labors as a source of management and observation will continue to be the most treasured commodity/technology of both today's and tomorrow's television industries.

Designing television's future necessitates an understanding of how technology always exists in a state of institutional interdependence, whereby progress is driven by specific interests, needs, and desires. This is not only true for strict techno-industrial developments in both entertainment and information industries but in a far more important history of narrative mediation. The fact that academic borders which seemingly distinguish the study of mass communication from cinema studies have not completely disappeared should not limit our investigations of mass media. The well-understood merger of film and broadcasting industries has not only forced a reconsideration of artistic and economic lines concerning past, present, and future visual pleasures but of academic lines as well. The rethinking of television and cinema will continue to be a necessary requirement for scholars and citizens who wish to understand the blurred borders of the information age. Part of this, I have argued, requires an understanding of the transformation of television signals from "free" and easily accessible into precious commodities that need to be controlled and managed. Nevertheless, one thing seems clear: activities surrounding television in postmodern economies are quickly placing more and more emphasis on the "interactive," the performative. From telecommuting to virtual environments, practices of interactivity are simultaneously manipulating our work behaviors and creating new and various desires and fantasies. These practices will need vigorous analysis as they will have numerous repercussions upon what is perhaps the most important site of the political: the social grid of desire and discipline. Signal theft may be quashed, or it may increase. What is important here is the underlying struggle to define television viewing. As critical scholars we need to decide not if cable theft is a problem but why it poses a threat that needs to be contained. The movement toward new modes of televisual "interactivity" and information production/extraction is one of the more important locations to place our investigative powers.

I have also attempted to make clear my skepticism regarding any rhetoric of interactivity which claims itself as a wholly positive and productive force. We need to explore this discourse of participation in order to understand the performative parameters it arbitrates. Are we really dealing with newfound freedoms here or merely new forms of obligatory production, extraction, and exploitation? It should be noted that signal theft, whether it requires the purchase of "black boxes," the unsanctioned recording and reproduction of signals, or the rearrangement and/or connection of preexisting wires, is grounded in currently available technologies. Yet a new screen technology is seemingly unavoidable, and with no real critical debate concerning the democratic possibilities of the information superhighway, I would submit that we are illequipped to understand our prospects for strategies of intervention. We need to understand that the very nature of television is changing and that this change is deeply rooted within a history of political and economic macrostrategies of social control. We need to be prepared for a day when we no longer "go to work" but are involved with work on what seems to be a never-ending basis. We need to be prepared when the labors of the day become one with interactive infotainment technologies that promise an expanding palette of choices. In the meantime, today's televisual choices offer so many options that viewers are now free to become thieves right in the comfort of their own homes.


I would like to thank Larra Clark, Derek Kompare, J. A. Lindstrom, Matthew Murray, Jim Schwoch, and David Tetzlaff for taking the time to read through numerous drafts of this paper in order to give both advice and encouragement. To be sure, without their enlightening comments and discussions, this paper would not have been possible.

(1.) During the 103rd Congress, three pieces of legislation were written that attempted to redefine telecommunications policy. Although the Markey-Fields-sponsored National Information Infrastructural Act of 1994, the Brooks-Dingell-sponsored Antitrust Reform Act, and the Hollings-sponsored Communications Act of 1994 all varied in content, each contained attempts to continue the tradition of "Universal Service." For a detailed examination of these bills, the problem of new telecommunications technologies, and "Universal Service," see John Browning, "Universal Service (An Idea Whose Time Has Past)," Wired 2.9 (1994): 102-05, 152-54.

(2.) As recently as a decade ago the undemocratic distribution of personal telephone services on an international level was still quite evident. As Meheroo Jussawalla notes, "The connection between telecommunication infrastructure and development is vividly apparent from the data on telephones available to the inhabitants of [lesser developed countries]." According to the Economist (26 January 1985: 69): "The 26 million people who live in the Tokyo metropolitan area have more telephones than the 500 million inhabitants of Africa. Of the 600 million telephones in the world, three quarters are owned by nine industrialized countries. Two-thirds of the world's population have no access to telephones at all." See Meheroo Jussawalla, D. Lamberton, and N. Karunarante, The Cost of Thinking: Information Economies of Ten Pacific Countries (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1988)21.

(3.) Ken Auletta, "Under the Wire," New Yorker 17 January 1994: 49.

(4.) Dallas W. Smythe, Dependency Road: Communications, Capitalism, Consciousness, and Canada (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1981) 1-21.

(5.) David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990) 180.

(6.) Harvey 186.

(7.) Harvey 186.

(8.) Harvey 187.

(9.) Stephen Heath, "Representing Television," Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990) 274.

(10.) See T. Barton Carter, Marc A. Franklin, and Jay B. Wright, The First Amendment and the Fifth Estate: Regulation of Electronic Mass Media, 3rd ed. (Westbury, NY: Foundation Press, 1993) 439-42.

(11.) It should always be remembered that the producers of television programming continually search for new markets for their wares. For example, though U.S. networks have not typically shown much of an interest in placing international programming in their schedules, one cannot overemphasize the force of international audiences as desirable markets when speaking of the U.S. production of television programming. As nations such as Canada have applied programming and content quotas in an attempt to preserve the sovereignty of a distinct regional/national culture, the development of point-to-point telecommunications technologies such as cable and satellites have conveniently avoided these regulations. Also, as the United States has developed a large concentration of Spanish-speaking minorities within urban areas, cable has responded. The U.S.-based Telemundo network and a Latin American version of MTV have been developed to service not only international audiences but large markets of Spanish-speaking viewers living in numerous, typically urban, U.S. communities. The same technolo gies allow for the importation of a myriad of programming that does not originate in the United States. Bilingual and non-English-speaking audiences have found these same technologies beneficial in pursuing other specific television and radio pleasures.

(12.) Larry Press, "The Internet and Interactive Television: Personal Computing," Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery 36.12 (1993): 19.

(13.) Accusations made by the CEO of TCI, John Malone, have pointed out that the recent acquisitions and attempted mergers (both failed and successful) of cable companies with regional Bell corporations have lacked a good portion of the supposed social interest that would allegedly result through these actions. Instead of an altruistic desire to help speed up the construction of the information highway for the civilian sector, regional Bell's sudden interest in cable, according to Malone, has been an offensive stance taken to defend these companies' interests in the ability to maintain their territorial monopolies on telephone services. By waving the flag of the information superhighway, regional Bells have been utilizing this rhetoric to assist in corporate raids of other telecommunications threats. See David Kline, "Infobahn Warrior," Wired July 1994: 87-88.

(14.) John Kirkley, "Special Advertising Section: Business Week's Conference on the Virtual Office," Business Week 5 September 1994: 63.

(15.) Charles Platt, "Satellite Pirates," Wired August 1994: 76.

(16.) Rod Stetzer, "Quash on Theft of Cable Coming," Leader-Telegram 20 February 1992: sec. 1, 1.

(17.) "A War on Cable-TV Pirates," Business Week 9 October 1978: sec. F, 104.

(18.) "A War."

(19.) "A War."

(20.) Michael Schrage, "Cable `Piracy' Said Costly to New Industry," Washington Post 17 May 1984: C12.

(21.) Schrage.

(22.) Communications Daily 6 June 1986: sec. Notebook, 13.

(23.) Ray Long, "35 Companies to Crack Down on Cable Theft," Chicago Sun-Times 7 November 1993: sec. Sunday News, 5.

(24.) "Die Is CAST; Cable Theft Target of New Industry Coalition," Communications Daily 23 November 1984: 6.

(25.) Communications Daily 6 June 1986: sec. Notebook, 13.

(26.) "Piracy Is Piracy; Cable Says It's Starting to Get Results from Signal Theft Campaign," Communications Daily 13 October 1988: 5.

(27.) "Piedmont Cable Offers Amnesty to TV Pirates," United Press International 3 February 1987: sec. Regional News: North Carolina, South Carolina.

(28.) Frances Ann Burns, "A Businessman Pleaded Guilty Friday to Selling 20,000 Illegal Television Decoders through Advertisements in Newspapers and National Magazines in What Federal Prosecutors Described as One of the Largest Cable Theft Schemes Ever Uncovered," United Press International 16 September 1988: sec. Regional News: New York Metro.

(29.) See "Man Dies after Being Crushed by Truck," St. Petersburg Times 23 June 1993: 3B.

(30.) Steve Halvonik, "TCI Fields 1,000 Amnesty Inquiries, Cable Thieves Prosecuted from Today," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 30 June 1993: 4B; Evelyn Hsu, "Company Grants January Amnesty to Cable Pirates," Washington Post 7 January 1993: M1; Ray Long, "35 Companies to Crack Down on Cable Theft," Chicago Sun-Times 7 November 1993: sec. Sunday News, 5.

(31.) These commercials supposedly ran from June 15, 1993, to July 15, 1993, and, as of June 23, 1993, a reported thirty cable thieves had become subscribers to the Jones Intercable system. See "Man Dies after Being Crushed by Truck."

(32.) "Inmates Sign Up for Settlements," Times-Picayune 12 December 1993: sec. Picayune, 111.

(33.) Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980) 61-62.

(34.) Mimi White, Tele-Advising: Therapeutic Discourse in American Television (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1992)8.

(35.) White 6, 8.

(36.) In one particular case, those prosecuted with cable theft were levied $7,500 in fines after the bar in question had illegally tapped and descrambled a cable source to view a Foreman-Holyfield heavyweight fight. The bar itself had taken these measures to avoid paying the $36.95 viewing fee. Joe Hallinan, "Cable-Theft Fight Tunes In on the Little Guy," Houston Chronicle 17 May 1992: 2C.

(37.) David Colker, "Street Beat: The Fight against Crime: Notes from the Front; Today's Pirates May Be Living on Your Block," Los Angeles Times 29 September 1993: 2B, Stephen Ohlemacher, "Cable Company Offer Stings Illegal Viewers; Gotcha; Cable Offer Carries a Sting," Hartford Courant 2 February 1993: Al.

(38.) Ohlemacher.

(39.) Colker.

(40.) Colker.

(41.) Burns.

(42.) Kenneth R. Clark, "Cable Industry Sending Signal to Pirates," Chicago Tribune 28 October 1990: sec. Business, 1.

(43.) Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979) 219.

(44.) One supposed technology is the "sniffer." Hooked up to trucks, the sniffer searches for amateur cable connections that "leak" signals into the air. The leaks, according to the company, were typically clear signs of cable theft and, when discovered, a reason to charge the unauthorized household with cable theft. Roger Clendening, "The Sniffer Is Prowling for Pirates," St. Petersburg Times 11 July 1992: sec. Pasco Times, 1.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A90190308