Washington -- Ameritech New Media president Deborah Lenart
said last week that she will urge Congress to expand program-access laws, even if the
Federal Communications Commission agrees to tighten its rules in a pending proceeding.
'We are absolutely not going to ease up,' she
told reporters at an ANM lobbying update. 'The program-access rules do not apply to
all producers of programming.'
Lenart said her company -- regional Bell operating company
Ameritech Corp.'s video arm, an MSO overbuilder with about 100,000 subscribers in
four Midwest states -- needs a new law to ensure a flow of cable programming owned by
broadcasters and by cable programmers that are unaffiliated with cable operators.
'[Current law] does not apply to broadcasters. It
doesn't apply to non-vertically integrated cable operators,' she said.
'There's a loophole in the law here about the size of the Grand Canyon that
really needs to be addressed this time.'
Lenart said her company has been unable to secure licensing
deals with MSNBC, which is owned by NBC, or with FX, which is owned by News Corp., because
of the gap in program-access laws.
Under current program-access laws and rules, cable
programming owned by cable operators that is satellite-delivered may not be withheld from
competing distributors of multichannel video programming.
Ameritech is asking Congress to extend the exclusivity ban
to broadcasters that own cable networks and to independent cable programmers such as
Viacom Inc. The Chicago-based Baby Bell also wants the law to guarantee that programming
delivered by means other than satellite can't escape the exclusivity ban.
'We are optimistic that we will see legislation come
forth on what we consider to be the need to rewrite the [1992 Cable] Act,' said Gary
Lytle, Ameritech's vice president of federal relations.
However, Lytle said it would be 'extremely
difficult,' but not 'impossible,' for the kind of bill that he wants to
At the FCC, the cable industry last week blasted an
Ameritech-inspired proposal to make three changes to current program-access rules.
In the rulemaking, the FCC is considering awarding damages
in program-access disputes; allowing complainants broad access to cable-programming
contracts in order to prove price discrimination; and imposing strict deadlines on itself
when program-access complaints have been filed.
The National Cable Television Association said the FCC
'proposed solutions to a nonexistent problem.'
The NCTA said the FCC has received relatively few
program-access complaints since 1992, and that it has handled the ones that it received in
seven months on average.
Moreover, the association said there is no evidence that
cable competitors are being denied access to nationally distributed programming services.
'All evidence suggests that the rules are working in
precisely the manner intended by Congress,' the NCTA said.
The FCC is considering whether it can take action if a
cable programmer covered by the program-access rules were to abandon satellite
distribution for terrestrial distribution in order to evade the rules.
DirecTv Inc. asked the FCC to consider such a rule. The No.
1 direct-broadcast satellite carrier has filed a program-access complaint against Comcast
Corp. over the MSO's refusal to sell Comcast SportsNet, the Philadelphia regional
sports network that Comcast distributes by microwave.
As a threshold matter, the NCTA said the FCC program-access
rules apply only to satellite-delivered programming. In the event that the FCC decided
that it could apply the rules to prevent evasion, the association said it would be
difficult to prove evasion if microwave distribution had a legitimate economic
Nevertheless, consumer groups urged the FCC to cover
terrestrial delivery under the rules and to do so quickly, arguing that cable-operator
regional clustering gives operators an incentive to migrate programming off satellite.
'The one complaint now before the [FCC] alleging that
a vertically integrated programmer evaded the program-access rules by altering its
delivery mechanism is just the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg,' said the Media
Access Project, a public-interest law firm that filed comments on behalf of the Consumers
Union, the Consumer Federation of America and itself.