L.A. Tweaks Program-Access Bill


Los Angeles— Regulators here have narrowed the scope of a proposal designed to prevent cable operators from forging exclusive regional programming agreements, but systems still vehemently oppose the so-called open program-access ordinance.

Operators expressed fears over the spread of a patchwork of regulations that could hamper development of new local programming. But the resolution's proponents said they want to ensure that incumbent operators don't stifle competition by locking overbuilders or other newcomers out of programming deals.

City attorneys disagree with assertions made by the local cable operators' association and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which claim the local proposal is pre-empted by federal law.

But bowing to criticism earlier this year, Los Angeles withdrew the initial draft of the ordinance. The new draft — debated by the industry and the city's Board of Information Technology Commissioners on March 21 — places more of a focus on preventing anti-competitive behavior.

The new two-page draft seeks to prevent local multichannel video-programming distributors in Los Angeles from coercing a network into providing exclusive content, and prevents retaliation against programmers that fail to proffer exclusivity.

Programming services in which an operator has "attributable interest" would be barred from engaging in "unfair methods of competition" or "deceptive acts or practices" that hinder distribution of that same content to other Los Angeles operators.

The new draft is closer to federal policy, which prevents exclusive agreements by satellite-delivered programmers that are owned or controlled by vertically integrated media companies.

The Los Angeles Cable Operators Association said the proposed legislation attempts to address a problem that doesn't exist, and such an ordinance would be costly and time-consuming for the cash-strapped city. LACOA represents Adelphia Communications, Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications Inc. and Charter Communications Inc.

"If there is a problem, it's exclusive programming agreements by [direct-broadcast satellite providers], which would not be impacted by this," said LACOA attorney William Bly.

"This will fill the gap the federal law doesn't address," countered board member Dean Hansell, a proponent of the resolution. Federal policy left broad deference to municipalities, he noted.

The board could vote on the new draft this month, but judging from comments by commissioners the decision could come down to a two-two tie. The fifth member, Sharon Rubalcava, has a conflict of interest on the issue and will not vote.