Program Access on FCC Agenda

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The Federal Communications Commission is making plans to review its program-access rules, which generally require cable operators to sell their satellite-delivered networks to DirecTV, EchoStar Communications and other pay TV providers, an agency official said Monday.

The FCC last looked at the rules in 2002, one decade after program-access provisions were enacted as part of the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992. Congress imposed forced-sale mandates on cable to ensure that the satellite-TV providers could gain access to cable channels that were too expensive for new entrants to duplicate.

Four years ago, the FCC examined the cable-programming market and concluded that it would not use its discretion to allow the cable-exclusivity ban to sunset. Instead, the commission extended the ban until October 2007, setting up the review it has nearing the launch pad.

The program-access regime has expanded beyond the original congressional design as a result of FCC-imposed merger conditions. Comcast and Time Warner Cable can’t withhold terrestrially delivered regional sports networks from rivals for the next six years under Adelphia Communications merger conditions adopted in July. However, Comcast did manage to secure a waiver for SportsNet Philadelphia.

And News Corp., in order to take control of DirecTV in 2003, promised to make its cable-programming services available on a nonexclusive basis for as long as the FCC’s program-access rules remain in effect.

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