Interactive TV rules divide nets

Mar 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The good news for The Walt Disney Co.’s campaign to win rules governing interactive television last week was that Viacom/CBS officially endorsed the effort.

But the bad news: In the wake of a last-minute lobbying campaign by the cable TV industry, NBC-which used to be Disney’s most visible ally on the issue-refused to endorse regulations.

The realignment of loyalties became public March 19, the deadline for comments in a Federal Communications Commission inquiry into possible adoption of ITV regulations.

In a joint filing at the agency, Disney and Viacom/CBS, along with USA Networks and Univision Communications, urged adoption of rules, under the banner of a new organization-the Non-MVPD (for multichannel video programming distributor) Owned Programming Networks.

NBC was conspicuously absent from the filing, considering that the Peacock Network and Disney had been urging the FCC to condition AOL’s acquisition of Time Warner last year with a provision giving AOL’s competitors fair access for ITV and other fare.

The FCC refused to include the condition in the deal. But in a political compromise to appease Disney, the FCC launched the ITV inquiry. That could result in DTV access regulations for the entire cable industry, not just AOL Time Warner.

Industry sources said Disney representatives were surprised to learn that NBC had decided not to join the coalition’s comments, a decision made in the wake of an effort by top cable TV industry executives to talk networks out of joining the coalition.

“It’s a mistake to let the government into your business,” was the pitch offered, according to one well-placed cable TV industry source.

But an NBC spokeswoman said the Peacock Network’s decision to abstain was not spurred by cable’s behind-the-scenes lobbying.

“We just decided it wasn’t a priority for us right now,” the spokeswoman said, contending that NBC can always raise concerns later if it decides to weigh in.

The coalition’s filing at the FCC argues that safeguards are needed to prevent cable systems from favoring their own interactive TV services.

“Consumers will not reap the full benefits of the ITV market … unless vertically integrated broadband distributors with market power are prevented from discriminating against unaffiliated ITV service and content providers,” the coalition said.

Speaking for the cable TV industry, however, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association warned that even the threat of regulation could discourage ITV.

“If the carriage of affiliated services triggered nondiscrimination obligations, cable operators would be deterred from investing in the development of such services,” NCTA said. “At this early stage of development, any such reluctance to invest would be fatal to the ongoing efforts of struggling interactive service providers.”