Sachs Attacks Paxson

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With the presidential race as tight as is, and polls showing that Al Gore and "W" are neck-and-neck, I was amazed to read inThe New York Timeslast week that two of the broadcast networks would not air live coverage of the presidential or vice presidential debates.

I should not have even been phased, given the litany of facts that National Cable Television Association president and CEO Robert Sachs spewed forth in his address at last week's Great Lakes Cable Expo in Chicago.

Sachs did not cite the latest news about the lack of broadcast coverage of the debates, which was probably announced after he gave his speech. But in his strongly worded preamble as to why cable must stand firm in opposing digital must-carry, he cited a report inThe Columbia Journalism Review. The article reported that broadcast-network coverage of each political convention this year was only 12 hours, compared with 30 hours in 1996 and 50 in 1976.

He also cited aWall Street Journalarticle which read, "Cable television is emerging as the new kind of TV-campaign coverage.as the three major broadcast networks have scaled back news on the presidential race."

In a nutshell, Sachs reminded listeners that broadcasters still enjoy the free use of the public spectrum, but cable, a highly regulated industry, is actually "fulfilling the public interest obligations that broadcasters have abdicated."

Nor does Sachs or the cable industry want to play tit-for-tat by asking the government to regulate broadcasters. Sachs just wants to stop broadcasters from winning digital must-carry protection for their second signals.

Cable, as Sachs reminded the audience, has always carried broadcast signals as part of the must-carry ruling. But now, broadcasters are petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to provide carriage of their digital and analog channels.

Sachs could not have found better ammunition for his case than bringing up the totally ridiculous move that Paxson Communications Corp. recently made. Paxson now has a proposal at the FCC that asks the regulatory agency to require cable carriage for five new digital signals in Chicago.

As nuts as that sounds, it's true. Sachs referred to the situation in Chicago, where Paxson has demanded carriage for channels carrying the Central, Eastern, and Pacific time-zone feeds of Pax TV, as well as programming from The Worship Network, The Praise Network and the Total Living Network.

As outrageous as the Paxson situation in Chicago is, it may not be an isolated one. Cable operators are understandably leery about what the broadcasters really have in mind for their digital signals. And it sounds like they have cause for pause.

It's becoming pretty apparent that most broadcasters have little interest in simply converting their analog programming to digital and giving the analog signal back to the government. What they all seem to be cooking up are plans to divvy up the digital spectrum of that second free channel to deliver, among other things, new networks or data services.

Clearly this is not what the government had in mind when it doled out those signals to broadcasters. And it's clearly not fair to cable programmers, who, if the FCC rules in favor of broadcasters, could be bumped to make room for a government-mandated, knuckled-headed idea.

It's truly amazing that broadcasters have the gall to ask this, particularly in an election year, when they are truly dissing the very government that gave them the free spectrum by not bothering to cover the presidential race.

Instead, broadcasters like CBS give usSurvivorand its ilk.

Perhaps that series is indeed a metaphor for the painful economic race they're now running against cable.

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