Small Ops Rev Up D.C. Agenda

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The American Cable Association, which has vehemently opposed the proposed merger of direct-broadcast satellite companies EchoStar Communications Corp. and DirecTV Inc., is also prepared to raise its lobbying voice about the upcoming round of retransmission-consent negotiations between its small-cable members and affiliates of the major broadcast networks.

In the coming weeks, the ACA plans to ask the Federal Communications Commission to launch an inquiry into retransmission consent and to look at whether the bargaining process between TV stations and cable operators that occurs every three years is being conducted fairly. The next retransmission consent round begins Oct. 1

Members of the group discussed similar initiatives at their joint annual meeting with members of the National Cable Television Cooperative in Orlando, Fla., in July. The NCTC negotiates collective programming and equipment deals for small operators.

Over the years, small operators have complained that the broadcast networks — especially The Walt Disney Co.'s ABC — have threatened to withhold the rights to their over-the-air TV stations from cable operators that don't agree to carry their various cable networks and pay hefty license fees.

ACA president Matt Polka said his group hopes Capitol Hill lawmakers this fall will introduce legislation that would allow operators to offer high-cost basic programming networks as à la carte services, and require programmers to pinpoint to the public the source of increased operating expenses.

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The ACA would also like to see laws that would allow for antitrust actions against network owners that tie carriage of a must-have service to a bundle of other channels that are not as popular with viewers.

Polka predicted broad support from lawmakers for legislation that would allow them to say to constituents, "Look, here a bill that's going to give you more choice."

The ACA — formed soon after the passage of the reregulatory 1992 Cable Act, which pushed some small operators to the edge of bankruptcy — today includes about 900 cable systems serving about 7.5 million subscribers.

Polka's group has been in contact with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association regarding his efforts on Capitol Hill. Polka said NCTA officials were not encouraging because they fear the effort would snowball into a law reregulating retail cable rates — something all operators, large and small, want to avoid.

"That's a fear," said Polka. "That's legitimate. Look at 1992. If history repeats itself, we are dead."

But Polka acknowledged that chances were good that Congress would exempt small operators from a new round of rate regulation.

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