Program access rule could stay in play

Oct 8, 2001  •  Post A Comment

In a blow to the cable TV industry, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to launch proceedings this week giving new life to regulations that require cable operators to sell their programming to competitors.
Under the so-called program access rules, cable operators have to make satellite-delivered programming networks in which they have financial interests available on fair terms to satellite TV operators and other multichannel video services.
Without FCC intervention, the rule, which was originally required by the Cable Act of 1992, would expire under a sunset provision on Oct. 7, 2002.
But sources said that top FCC officials believe the regulations may continue to be needed to ensure effective competition for cable.
The cable TV industry has long opposed the rules because they force cable to support its competition.
“When there’s vigorous competition, as there is now in video, exclusives by one or the other player helps promote that competition,” said David Beckwith, spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
But satellite TV operators say the regulations continue to be needed because cable is still a dominant player in the market, with 80 percent of the nation’s multichannel subscribers compared with satellite’s 17 percent.
“If you look at the subscriber statistics, it’s pretty difficult to say competition is alive and well in the marketplace,” said James Ashurst, a spokesman for the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association.
Nothing in the law requires the agency to launch the proceedings. Instead, the law says the rules should expire 10 years after they were originally enacted in 1992 “unless the FCC finds, in a proceeding conducted during the last year of such 10-year period, that such prohibition continues to be necessary to preserve and protect competition and diversity in the distribution of video programming.”
Among the cable networks affected by the program access obligations are HBO and CNN, both owned by AOL Time Warner, and the Discovery Channel, which is owned in part by Cox Communications and Newhouse.
Also this week, the FCC is tentatively slated to vote on regulations that could allow public broadcasting stations to use at least part of their digital channels for commercial purposes.
Under the concept, public broadcasters could offer a broad range of money-making ventures on their frequencies, including subscription college courses and other kinds of pay TV, as long as they’re still offering a free commercial-free service.
At deadline, sources said it was unclear whether the proposal would get the support of a majority of the agency’s commissioners.
“We want the FCC to clarify the rules so our stations can use a sliver of their spectrum for revenue-producing activities,” said John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations.