Specter Hot Under Collar About Cable


WASHINGTON — An annoyed Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) wants to stage a public hearing in Philadelphia to highlight his general dismay with the cable industry and with Comcast Corp.'s alleged mistreatment of local and national competitors.

At an April 4 Senate Antitrust Subcommittee hearing on cable competition, Specter complained about cable rates and service quality. He also questioned whether Comcast was playing fair by withholding sports programming from satellite competitors and offering seemingly tough contract terms to overbuilder RCN Corp.

According to Specter, Comcast and RCN resolved their differences over access to Comcast SportsNet in a March 23 meeting in his office. But Specter said he shouldn't be forced to mediate disputes between rivals — and wouldn't have to if cable faced genuine competition.

"I'm wondering why that commitment had to come in a meeting in a senator's office [and] why that commitment couldn't come between the parties?" Specter said.

Specter, a Time Warner Cable subscriber, said he was concerned about his cable rates and his provider's responsiveness to customers.

"I have a constituent who can never get the cable company on the telephone, and she is a very important constituent because when I come home, that's all I hear about," said Specter, apparently referring to his wife, Joan.

The senator also voiced distress that Time Warner, Comcast and AT&T Broadband failed to provide witnesses for the hearing. The cable industry sent two representatives: National Cable Television Association president Robert Sachs and Charter Communications Inc. president and CEO Jerald Kent.

If the major cable operators snub his Philadelphia hearing, Specter indicated that he's ready to issue subpoenas.

"I am very concerned … that a number of invitees have not responded — Time Warner, Comcast, AT&T," Specter said. "There are ways to assure attendance other than by invitation, which I think has to be considered by this subcommittee."

Specter said he planned to send Comcast a letter outlining his concerns.

The letter had been sent, Specter press aide Jim Twaddell said last week, but he would not furnish a copy to the media. Twaddell said he was unsure whether a date for the Philadelphia field hearing had been set.

"We have received the letter," a Comcast source said. "Out of courtesy to the senator, if his office is not going to release it, we are not going to release it.

"It's an inquiry that centers on two questions regarding Comcast SportsNet and, of course, we will respond promptly."

After the hearing, a Senate aide said the subcommittee did not expect AT&T and Time Warner to send witnesses. Comcast had been expected to attend, but the aide said its absence might have been due to a misunderstanding.

NCTA's Sachs made light of the fuss. "Jerry Kent flew in from Seattle overnight to be here and he's chopped liver?"

The hearing also included testimony from DirecTV Inc. global chairman Eddy Hartenstein, RCN vice chairman Robert J. Currey and Consumers Union Washington office co-director Gene Kimmelman.

Hartenstein expressed concern about regulations that will require DBS providers to carry all local TV stations next year and about continued access to cable programming. Currey voiced concerns about access to sports programming controlled by Comcast in Philadelphia and Cablevision Systems Corp in New York. Kimmelman brought up the cable industry's rates, accusing it of "gouging" its subscribers.

Comcast SportsNet is a regional network that telecasts Philadelphia professional hockey, basketball and baseball games. The MSO refuses to sell the network to DirecTV or Dish Network Corp.

Comcast may withhold the network from competitors under federal program-access rules, which exempt terrestrially delivered networks like Comcast SportsNet. The FCC has rejected complaints against Comcast filed by DirecTV and EchoStar.

Comcast sells Comcast SportsNet to RCN, but RCN has complained about being offered only short-term contracts.