Whenever Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell goes to the National Show, he usually packs a message.
This year, it was simple: go local.
Cable operators, Powell said, need to offer more local programming to forge stronger ties with their communities and challenge TV stations' strong grip on the local-news market.
"I think the cable industry has a lot of untapped areas, like in local communities. I really think there is no reason a local cable system can't out-local the local broadcaster," Powell said in a one-on-one National Show interview with Michael Willner, chairman of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and vice chairman and CEO of Insight Communications Co.
News on the march
Some cable operators, particularly Cablevision Systems Corp. and AOL Time Warner Inc., have embraced local news. Cablevision's effort began in 1986; today the company has versions of News 12 Network airing on its cable systems in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York.
Time Warner Cable has eight news channels — including outlets in Tampa and Orlando, Fla.; Austin, Texas; and New York City — and is developing two more.
Powell indicated that the cable industry as a whole should do more in the local news and information arena, given that the vast majority of pay-TV viewers subscribe to cable.
"I'd like to see a lot more of that. I'd like to see cable making a presence in the community, having local news channels," Powell explained. "I think it would be an enormous maturing of the cable industry to start being a more approachable presence in people's towns and communities."
On the regulatory front, Powell conveyed the message that cable would be assuming some risk if the industry rallied behind legislation intended to give operators greater leverage over programming suppliers.
"Be careful what you ask for," he said. "The public-policy environment is nervous, but not sure what it wants. You hear fights about cable rates, must-carry, and [retransmission consent]. But just remember there is no surgical legislation in America anymore."
The NCTA is opposed to legislation that would, in certain circumstances, require large programming packages to be broken up into smaller tiers. Some operators, though, do not want Congress to help that cause.