FCC Chief Skeptical of Must-Carry


Washington -- Deborah Lathen, chief of the Federal
Communications Commission's Cable Services Bureau, said last week that broadcasters
have to shoulder the burden of demonstrating that cable operators need to carry their
digital-TV signals.

In her first meeting with reporters since taking the job
June 29, Lathen said she agreed with statements by FCC chairman William Kennard two weeks
ago that digital must-carry would not be automatically bestowed on the nation's 1,500
commercial TV stations.

"I think what the chairman said is that no one should
assume that they have a right to be carried, and that the case has to be made for that,
and I think that's the way it should be," Lathen said.

The FCC is conducting a digital must-carry rulemaking, with
several alternatives under discussion. Cable operators and broadcasters are scheduled to
file initial comments in the proceeding Oct. 13. About two-dozen TV stations in major
markets are set to begin transmitting digitally in November.

"Every Congress, every administration, every FCC since
the mid 1980s has supported the concept of local digital television. We'd like to
think that this FCC will continue that legacy," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for
the National Association of Broadcasters.

On other various policy issues, Lathen said:

• The bureau would take the lead in reviewing AT&T
Corp.'s proposed acquisition of Tele-Communications Inc., which was filed with the
FCC two weeks ago.

• The FCC will be looking at the AT&T-TCI merger
as of means of advancing the rollout of advanced services to all Americans.

"I can't tell you that we are going to have any
preconditions. All I can say is that it is something that we will be thinking about as we
look at that merger," she said.

• The March 31, 1999, sunset on FCC cable-rate rules
meant that "there is not much that we can do directly with respect to rates."
Yet she declined to comment on whether Congress should extend the sunset.

• The FCC was not entertaining a rate freeze because
"there are probably some cable companies that are acting responsibly with respect to
rates, so it would not be fair to them," and because the impact on small operators
was uncertain.

• The cable industry's 87 percent market share is
indicative of monopoly power, but competition is developing.

"I don't know when it's going to happen. I
think that we are going the right way," she said.

• America Online Inc.'s call for equal access to
Internet-service providers for cable-modem subscribers is "an issue that warrants
further study," but she declined to take a position.

Lathen, who replaced Meredith Jones, left an executive
position in California with Nissan Motor Corp. to reunite with Kennard, whom she first met
while attending Harvard Law School with his sister in the 1970s.

"Let met put it this way: I met him when you could
still call him Billy and you could still call me Debbie, and you can't do that
anymore for either one of us," Lathen said with a laugh.

With FCC regulation of cable rates largely terminating
March 31, 1999, some have wondered whether Lathen would be the bureau's last chief.
But she dismissed that talk as speculative.

"I certainly wouldn't have left the shores of the
Pacific for the Potomac if I didn't think that we were going to be here," she
said. "I think that we have got to have a cable bureau."