Atlanta -- There have been "at least" 58
congressional hearings since January on telecommunications policy, by the count of Pam
Turner, vice president of government relations at the National Cable Television
Association. Not surprisingly, Congress hasn't lost interest.
In June, a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee
is planning to look at concentration and cross-ownership in the cable industry -- and
particularly at Tele-Communications Inc.'s stakes in Time Warner Inc. and Cablevision
The same hearing will include an examination of
cable's sports-programming costs and of cable-backed PrimeStar Inc.'s union with
Rupert Murdoch's satellite company, American Sky Broadcasting.
Jon Leibowitz, minority chief counsel of the Senate
Antitrust, Business Rights and Competition Subcommittee, said at the National Show here
that the medley of cable issues to be reviewed gave the panel's leaders -- chairman
Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.) -- "some degree of anxiety,
but not necessarily any concern."
(TCI's business ties are getting a close inspection
from the Federal Communications Commission, too. The FCC is expected shortly to revive
rules that cap national ownership of cable systems at 30 percent of households.)
At about the same time that DeWine is holding his
cable-ownership hearing, the full Senate Judiciary Committee will focus on amending the
Satellite Home Viewer Act for full Senate consideration later on.
"The Satellite Home Viewer Act is something that we
could possibly actually do," Leibowitz said at a panel of Capitol Hill staffers. Time
was an issue, he said, because only 40 to 50 legislative days remained in the 105th
But Leibowitz said the House Judiciary Committee might be
too preoccupied with Monica Lewinsky to focus on SHVA legislation introduced by Rep.
Howard Coble (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Courts and Intellectual Property
There's another problem with the House bill that
Leibowitz didn't mention.
During Coble's markup, the panel approved an amendment
that would deny copyright-owners a large increase in fees for direct-broadcast satellite
provision of superstation and distant-network signals to home-dish owners. That angered
copyright interests and forced Coble to table the bill indefinitely.
Louis Dupart, the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee's
chief counsel, said SHVA reform was geared toward "doing what we can to promote
satellite competition, but not to do it in such a way as to impede [cable's] ability
to compete against them."
The Senate bill (S. 1720) would allow DBS companies to beam
local-TV signals into their markets of origin -- the so-called local-into-local issue.
But the bill, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee
chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), would require DBS carriage of all local stations in a given
market -- a provision supported by the cable and broadcast industries.
EchoStar Communications Corp. -- the only DBS company
offering a local-TV-signal service -- said the full must-carry requirement was an unfair
burden on its channel capacity.
House and Senate lawmakers are hoping that satellite
legislation will make the industry more competitive with cable and restrain cable rates
more effectively than FCC regulations have.
"Perhaps the most radioactive issue out there is the
issue of cable prices and rate increases," said Julian Epstein, minority staff
director of the House Judiciary Committee.
Epstein said it was "feasible" for Congress to
pass a local-into-local bill with must-carry. But, he said, the bill would be doomed for
the year if it tried to deal with the satellite copyright-fee issue. Epstein added that
copyright-owners will "fight hard" if Congress attempts to slash the new,
27-cent-per-subscriber, per-month rate set by the Librarian of Congress.
Leibowitz said Senate passage would depend on reaching a
compromise with the Senate Commerce Committee on satellite copyright fees and must-carry.
Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wants the 27-cent rate reduced and
must-carry obligations phased in, putting him at odds with Hatch.
Dupart said Judiciary Committee Republicans want to pass
the bill this year, even if it means compromising with McCain.
"If you can't get dinner, take a sandwich,"