NCTA Notes

Apr 11, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Stevens Views Controls

Republican Sen. Ted Stevens’ visit last week to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s National Show in San Francisco apparently did not convince him to drop his campaign to subject cable to the same sort of indecency prohibitions that broadcasters face. But during his April 3 visit, sources said, cable industry leaders made clear their continuing opposition to regulation and re-tiering. The lawmaker was given a demonstration of blocking technology that consumers already can use to keep objectionable cable programming out of their homes.

“Chairman Stevens hasn’t made any decisions yet,” the Senator’s spokeswoman, Melanie Alvord, said in a statement. “He received a very good explanation of cable’s new approach to parental control. At this point he is not convinced yet that this is the total answer, but believes the cable industry is certainly working to try to find an answer.”

Martin Offers Advice

Kevin Martin, in his first public appearance before a cable TV audience since being named chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, urged the industry last week to self-regulate and to provide consumers and parents with as many ways as possible to control viewing by children. He said that is the best way to diminish the possibility that indecency regulations that apply to over-the-air broadcasting will be extended to cable.

He said during a general session on the final day of the National Show that the ultimate decision on whether to regulate cable content will be made by Congress, and that the FCC’s job would then be to enforce the rules.

In a short press conference with a gaggle of reporters backstage after his appearance, Mr. Martin was asked about his past votes in favor of digital must-carry of new broadcast channels on cable systems. He sidestepped the question, saying the issue is not currently before the commission, and added that if it is brought up again he will decide then how to respond.

Iger Briefs Press

One of the first moves made after Bob Iger was tapped to become CEO of The Walt Disney Co. in October was the elimination of Disney’s strategic planning group, a group that some staffers saw as stifling their ability to do their jobs. During a press briefing last week at the National Show, Mr. Iger said the elimination of the group was a way of “empowering our business unit executives, Anne Sweeney and George Bodenheimer [co-chairmen of Disney Media Networks] among them, to create strategies for their own businesses and be accountable for the strategic direction of their units.”

Last month Disney took a stance on the television decency issue that diverged from the rest of the industry by indicating its willingness to accept regulation of cable content. Mr. Iger took the opportunity to clarify the company’s position. “We don’t really believe there should be regulation. We believe market conditions should really dictate,” he said. “However, we believe if there is to be legislation, we believe some form of logic should prevail … because of the ubiquity of the multichannel service, we really believe it should be subject to the same regulations on indecency, if there are to be [any], as broadcast.”

He said that stance was not driven by Disney’s ownership of family-oriented cable networks and programming. “We simply believe that since we run very important broadcast businesses, we don’t feel that broadcast businesses should be subject to a different standard than cable program services,” he said.

He added that the a la carte solution being offered as a way to enable families to exclude channels would be a worse solution. “That would be very anti-consumer. And while it appears it would empower the consumer, the result would be the consumer would have to pay dearly for that empowerment,” he said.

Gore, Hyatt Update Plans

Former Vice President Al Gore and entrepreneur Joel Hyatt provided an update on their cable venture in San Francisco last week. The network, now called Current (formerly INdTV), uses a unique programming model in which young amateur filmmakers and video bloggers contribute short-form content on subjects ranging from civil strife in the Sudan to urban trends such as roof jumping. The videos will be presented throughout the day by a multicultural blend of hosts in an MTV-style format. The network was variously described as a “tapas bar for young adults,” “a network for the Internet generation” and “a video iPod.”

During a presentation, founders Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt said Current will launch Aug. 1 in 19 million homes, including on DirecTV and in some Time Warner and Comcast households.

The content shown to reporters lacked the ideological slant that many assumed Mr. Gore’s network would carry. “We have no interest in being a … TV version of Air America,” he said, referring to the left-leaning radio network.

Cohen’s Lifetime Debut

Typically, top executives use National Show press dinners as a chance to meet industry reporters. But freshly announced Lifetime President and CEO Betty Cohen was interested in getting to know her own staff, some of whom had yet to talk to the former Turner executive.

During a reception at the Slanted Door restaurant, Ms. Cohen said she had flown from Atlanta to New York for a secret meeting with top Lifetime executives on March 31, only to find her BlackBerry buzzing when she landed-news of her hiring was out. That was Thursday night. By Sunday she was the belle of the ball at Lifetime’s press dinner. In between she had received congratulatory calls from members of Congress due to Lifetime’s efforts in championing legislation on women’s issues. “That doesn’t happen when you’re working at the Cartoon Network,” she said.

ABC News Offers Suite

ABC News is bundling into one digital suite all its multimedia offerings, from video-on-demand to its 24/7 channel ABC News Now, for delivery to cable, satellite, broadband and wireless platforms. The multimedia strategy is expected to debut in July.

ABC News President David Westin announced the initiative last week at the National Show. He said ABC News Now, as the complete bundle will be known, is “the next generation” of news content services and will make the 24-hour cable channel model of convenience “somewhat outdated.”

The 10 ABC-owned-and-operated stations will be provided content and resources at launch. The package will be built around the 24/7 digital channel, which had an extended telecast test from summer 2004 through the Bush inauguration in January.

Comcast Protested

The National Show opened April 3 in San Francisco with a few dozen protesters outside the Moscone Convention Center. They were complaining about poor labor relations and high prices from Comcast, which operates most of the local systems.

Stephen Burke, chief operating officer of Comcast, downplayed the protests, saying that a small percentage of the MSO’s labor force has voted to decertify the union. He added that Comcast has more than 20 million subscribers who choose to pay Comcast’s rates rather than turning to competitors.

FCC Reps Seek Privacy

Three Federal Communications Commissioners said the Government in Sunshine Act should be amended to permit more private interaction. Appearing at a National Show luncheon, Commissioners Michael Copps, Jonathan Adelstein and Kathleen Abernathy argued that the law, which prevents more than two FCC commissioners from meeting in private, impedes progress and forces panel members to work through intermediaries.

“What in effect happens is the staff has to cut deals,” Ms. Abernathy said. “When you go through intermediaries things are lost, nuances are missed.” Federal Trade Commissioner Jon Leibowitz said he expects Congress to “support some modification.” In February, before he stepped down, former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, along with Mr. Copps, asked Congress to consider changing the Sunshine Act.

Gospel Net Gets Deals

The Gospel Music Channel announced new carriage deals, new programming and additional support from advertisers. Brad
Siegel, vice chairman of Gospel, said Verizon agreed to distribute the network on the video service it plans to introduce at mid-year.

The network also announced plans to launch an “American Idol”-like program called “Gospel Dream 2005,” with a September debut. Production will start in July with preliminary rounds in 10 markets. Ford Motor Co. will be the lead sponsor and exclusive automotive advertiser on “Gospel Dream.” Gospel, which launched in October 2004, is available via operators including Cox and Knology. –ALEX BEN BLOCK, MICHELE GREPPI, DOUG HALONEN, JAMES HIBBERD and JON LAFAYETTE