ACA’s Polka: We Discriminate, for Customers

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Washington -- A war of words spilled over into the 14th Annual Summit of the American Cable Association here Tuesday after the president of the National Association of Broadcasters Monday said at its annual convention in Las Vegas that operators of America's cable systems were practicing discrimination on what TV programming will be shown to American consumers.

The war also spilled into published combat in the pages of the National Journal's Congress Daily and Warren Communications News' Communications Daily.

"The big broadcast lobby out in Las Vegas this week calls us ‘cable monopolists’ and ‘discriminators against television broadcasters,’” said Matt Polka, CEO of the ACA, which represents operators of generally small, independent operators of cable systems. "Well, they may be right. We'll discriminate everyday in favor of what's right for our customers, while you continue to seek government advantage over the little guy."

Polka's remarks came out of what he said was anger after reading an advertisement that the NAB placed in Communications Daily in the morning.

The ad tried to black-mark the plans of the ACA to lobby members of Congress Wednesday on issues ranging from how negotiations for rights to retransmit the TV signals of broadcasters get conducted to whether cable operators should be able to decide whether to downconvert HDTV signals to standard-definition, if they should choose, to save bandwidth.

Polka said it was hard not to take the latest NAB broadside personally when the Communications Daily advertisement said the ACA's members would be on Capitol Hill "urging Congress to disrupt the retransmission-consent process to favor cable operators" and cited a Jan. 30 article in Multichannel News where Polka said, ''This is not something we can win on the academic merit and substance of our arguments.''

Polka told the attendees of the Summit, "It wasn't a period at the end of my sentence -- it was a comma! What did I say after the comma? 'We win on the strength of our political message and the recognition on the part of Congress that there is a consumer need to be addressed.'”

The ACA set up roughly 150 meetings Wednesday with members of Congress and conducted a Lobbying 101 session at the end of the first full day of its summit to prepare approximately 200 of its members on how to address retransmission consent, downconversion and other issues with legislators.

An ACA ad appeared in Congress Daily AM, a publication of the National Journal, Tuesday that challenged broadcasters, as well. The ad showed dollars and change being shaken out of a cable customer's pockets by a "broadcaster conglomerate" that benefited from "government-mandated must-carry," "government-granted free spectrum," "government-mandated basic-tier carriage" and "government-granted retrans consent.''

The verbal and print volleys followed a declaration Monday by NAB president David K. Rehr that cable operators should be recast as discriminators against television broadcasters.

In his keynote address at the NAB2007 convention at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel, Rehr said cable operators were committing prejudice against broadcasters when they tried to planned to drop new digital channels of programming planned that local TV stations were bringing to market, calling it "stripping." He added that "ripping out programming" that broadcasters produced unfairly favors operators' own collections of networks.

He also said downconverting broadcasters' HD signals to standard-definition discriminated in favor of cable networks carried in HD.

"What we have here is broadcast discrimination by the cable operators,” he added.

Local broadcasters have spent billions of dollars to get ready to send programming in HD, Rehr said, and policymakers should be told that cable operators that practice downconversion are discriminating against them for competitive advantage.

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