Washington— Tony Fox, senior vice president of corporate communications for Comedy Central, came here last week armed with a snappy one-liner that few in the broadcast fraternity would find funny: No dual must-carry.
Fox, joined by about two dozen cable-network programming executives, munched on chicken salad and bow-tie pasta at a downtown hotel while preaching to reporters that cable operators' programming choices shouldn't be dictated by government rules.
Afterwards, the group hopped a shuttle bus and headed for Capitol Hill for an afternoon of meetings with members and key staffers from the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee.
The visit was similar to one cable-network chiefs paid to Federal Communications Commission officials in November 1999, about the same topic.
For years, the cable industry and some broadcasters have been at loggerheads over whether federal law requires cable operators to carry both analog and digital TV signals until a time when most Americans have digital-TV receiving equipment.
Here is the National Association of Broadcasters' position, which has not been uniformly endorsed by the four major networks: Dual carriage is essential to an orderly, consumer-friendly transition to digital. That transition would have limited impact on cable operators, promote consumer welfare and expedite the return of analog spectrum to the federal government, which would reallocate it to the wireless phone industry by auction.
Not surprisingly, the cable industry maintains that none of those contentions are true or mandated by law. The National Cable & Telecommunication Association says carriage of duplicative broadcast signals would squeeze channel capacity and lead operators to bump established channels and tell new networks like Oxygen to hold their breath for a few years.
As a legal matter, the NCTA claims cable operators are required to carry digital signals only after TV stations have surrendered their analog licenses. NAB disputes that point, too.
"What we don't want to see is a channel like TechTV, which is producing 12 hours of original programming, disadvantaged because of a decision to have dual must-carry," said TechTV CEO Larry Wangberg.
Analog must-carry was bad enough in 1992, when nearly all local TV stations received mandatory cable carriage, said AMC Networks president Kate McEnroe. A double dose of must-carry would now gobble up dozens of new channels, she predicted.
"We went through must-carry once," McEnroe said. "To lose 30 or 40 digital channels in the future is, I think, something we are not comfortable with."
Cable programmers delivered this message to the NAB: Pick analog or digital, but not both.
"I don't hear one broadcaster who's saying they want to do that today," said A&E Television Networks president ant CEO Nick Davatzes.
Among those who made the Capitol Hill trip were Discovery Communications Inc. chief operating officer Judith McHale, Odyssey Network CEO Margaret Loesch, Oxygen Media chairman Geraldine Laybourne and Starz Encore Group LLC COO Mark Bauman.
Mark Anderson, legislative director for Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), said he met with Wangberg, Bauman, and Patricia Langer, Lifetime Television's executive vice president for legal affairs, for about 30 minutes. Terry serves on the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, the legislative starting point for any dual must-carry bill.
Anderson said he doesn't have the sense that dual must carry legislation is developing in the House.
"I don't think there has been a lot of support one way or another," he said.
On the dual must-carry issue, the wind appears to be at cable's back. Four months ago, the Federal Communications Commission ruled out dual must-carry for now, asserting that the burden on cable could not be justified under the First Amendment.
But the FCC has kept the docket open to collect data on operators' actual channel capacity.
Even though the FCC is epicenter of the dual must-carry debate, the programming chiefs said they wanted to make the rounds on Capitol Hill to blunt some broadcasters' attempts to seek a legislative solution.
"There is growing interest, especially driven by [Lowell] 'Bud' Paxson, in dealing with this issue in a different form," said Davatzes, referring to the chairman of Paxson Communications Corp., the country's largest TV-station owner. "One of things that we have learned is that if we don't get down here and get our message across to Congress, our message will be lost."
Paxson's digital must-carry proposal varies slightly from the NAB's. He wants analog carriage of his stations' primary digital signal and digital-tier carriage for five multicast services.
Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, said on May 11 that legislation mandating dual must-carry would run into serious First Amendment problems.
But cable programmers said they wanted to drive home two points to lawmakers: TV stations don't deserve any gifts from Congress and all programmers should compete for space on the cable dial on a level playing field.
"Our ability to operate in a free market and not have legislation that guarantees carriage to certain parties is really key to our ability to survive as a business," Odyssey's Loesch said. "So it is imperative that we are successful today in getting our message that good public policy should promote diversity and not prevent that diversity."