Al Gore's planned entry into the cable business could not have been timed any better for the industry he intends to join.
The former vice president is fronting an investment group that is reportedly ready to plunk down $70 million to buy tiny Newsworld International (NWI) from Vivendi Universal Entertainment.
Gore, we're told, wants to turn the network into some kind of political sanctuary for those on the Left who think the mass media have been captured by the Right.
Time To Lobby?
For cable, the question now is whether Gore's interest in the channel is such that it would motivate him to speak out against gestating policies at the Federal Communications Commission that could harm his politically ambitious network's ability to secure space on the crowded cable dial.
Gore's participation could be decisive. The FCC is reportedly split 2-2 on one key policy that could make or break NWI in its quest for commercial viability.
Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat who joined the FCC last December, reportedly holds the tie-breaking vote.
Something tells me Adelstein — a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle — would be receptive to a personal exchange with Gore.
Gore does have one liability, and it's big: Proponents of government mandates favorable to local TV stations but harmful to NWI would cite the 1992 Cable Act as their authority for government intervention.
Who wrote that law? Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), with the help of broadcasters.
How did it become law? Over President George H.W. Bush's veto, again with broadcasters using their enormous lobbying clout on Capitol Hill.
Gore's derogation of cable pioneer John Malone as "the king of the cable cosa nostra" won't help much on the optics front, either.
But that was then. This is now.
Gore — if in control of a struggling cable network that can't get its political message out to 78% of U.S. pay TV homes — could be the perfect person to make cable's case that local TV stations should not be entitled to create congestion by claiming dozens of cable channels by government fiat.
Cable networks, from A&E Network to C-SPAN, and cable companies, from Comcast to Insight, are united in fighting two policies under consideration at the FCC. Agency chairman Michael Powell has promised to produce a vote this fall.
The first issue is called "dual must-carry," which would require cable systems to carry a local TV station's analog and digital signals during the transition to digital-only broadcasting. The transition is supposed to end Dec. 31, 2006, but it probably won't happen for at least another decade, courtesy of a statutory loophole that makes the deadline meaningless.
The second battle is over "multicasting." Digital technology allows a TV station to transmit five or six channels in the same amount of spectrum that one analog signal occupies today. After the transition, broadcasters want mandatory cable carriage of all five or six — a huge jump from the one analog channel to which they are currently entitled.
No one thinks dual must-carry has a majority at the FCC.
Multicasting, with its promise of new and diverse programming free to off-air only viewers, is still in play.
Established cable programmers assert that a multicasting mandate will bump them from cable systems. That means a network like Gore's NWI, stuck at 20 million subscribers with none of the advantages of incumbency, could just about forget becoming a political force on a par with Fox News Channel.
Cable also calls the multicasting mandate unfair because TV stations that already have access to consumers over the air would gain cable carriage by default while A&E, CNN, and C-SPAN, which do not possess FCC broadcast licenses, would have to bargain with cable operators for their survival.
Broadcasters don't accept any of this. They say cable operators can compress all off-air digital signals from one TV station into a space 50% smaller than that taken up by one analog signal — this while cable-system capacity has exploded, thanks to $70 billion in cable-funded upgrades.
Whatever the FCC decides must be grounded in the law — Gore's law.
The key legal issue in the multicasting debate centers on the Cable Act's intent in commanding that cable operators must carry a TV station's "primary video."
The FCC held in 2001, after checking the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, that "primary" in the context of "primary video" meant one signal, not several.
Broadcasters, who've never been known to concede a comma, insist primary could mean several, as in "primary colors," or have a plural meaning, as in "primary evidence." Evidently, there are two FCC members who agree with the latter analysis and two who don't.
It's now up to Adelstein to decide what Gore's law actually means — at least until the courts say otherwise. Will the former next president of the United States deign to pay FCC headquarters a visit?
Ted Hearn is Washington news editor of Multichannel News.