Starz Encore Takes Umbrage at 'Wire' Item


To the Editor:

Multichannel News
is the leading publication covering the cable-TV business, backed by a team of seasoned journalists who each week exercise good judgment and give perspective through their balanced and thorough coverage of the industry.

Unfortunately, your publication failed to live up to its normal high standards when it printed an unscrupulous "Through The Wire" item (March 26) suggesting possible impropriety in FCC Cable Services Bureau Chief Deborah Lathen's recent participation in the Second Sino-International Cable TV Conference in Beijing. In fact, the trip was not only proper and approved in advance by the FCC general counsel, but also incredibly significant, as Ms. Lathen, through her keynote speech, eloquently conveyed the importance of open markets and competition to nearly every top cable-TV official in China.

China has 80 million cable homes and 264 million TV households. A domestic-policy debate is now underway in China about cable's future role in that country's telecommunications picture. Ms. Lathen's message, carrying the official imprimatur of the U.S. government, was delivered at a critical time when policy is being formed that could precipitate a broad exchange between the Chinese and U.S. cable-TV industries. Building bridges between cable interests in both countries could lead to a Chinese replication of cable's dramatic success in America and, ultimately, new business opportunities for our industry.

China possesses a modern, sophisticated cable infrastructure but lacks knowledge of business and programming models perfected in the U.S. This conference addressed that need with an eye toward creating long-term cable industry relationships between East and West. At this year's conference, discussions were held on a wide array of industry topics including video-on-demand, television commerce, high-speed Internet access, telephony, programming, convergence and financial models.

In two years, the Sino-International Cable TV Conference has become the premier international forum for the top executives and policy makers involved with cable in China. Its success is due in large part to the hard work of Encore International President Michelle Sie Whitten and her staff in Beijing.

No issue involving Encore International, which cosponsored the conference with China's Special Administration on Film, Radio and Television, or its affiliated company, Starz Encore Group LLC, has ever come before Ms. Lathen during her tenure as Cable Bureau chief. And while the Cable Bureau's aegis may extend across the U.S., it certainly doesn't reach China. To suggest some conflict of interest existed here is outrageous at best.

Not letting the facts stand in the way of a story that might carry even a whiff of perceived (as opposed to real) impropriety, Multichannel News
proceeded to publish a cynical, shallow article laced with words like "junket" that left the reader with the unfounded impression that some egregious breach of the public trust had occurred. It was the sad result of a writer salivating over a story with the hint of wrongdoing and editors lacking either the courage or wisdom to put a halt to its publication.

Adding to what was already a journalistic dog's dinner, Multichannel News
demonstrated its ignorance of the conference's importance with a cheap-shot rhetorical query ("Anyone heard of that one?") questioning the conference's legitimacy.

In answer to the question, The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, The European Wall Street Journal, China Daily, Kagan Asia Media, Asia Cable & Satellite World,
three major Chinese television networks and numerous local and Chinese-language publications on both sides of the Pacific have all "heard" of and reported on the conference, with Kagan labeling last year's inaugural event as "historic."

Beyond the media, entities as diverse as Motorola Inc., ESPN, Bank of China International, AOL International, Salomon Smith Barney, Scientific-Atlanta Inc., the University of Denver and The Cable Center have all recognized its importance and participated.

It is disappointing that Multichannel News
used a narrow lens to focus on a global event where the industry is doing something really worthwhile and important. Your story in "Through the Wire" was a distortion and disservice to your readers — a real short circuit. Perhaps the next time Multichannel News

latches on to what it thinks is the next big Washington scandal, it will instead exercise the appropriate professionalism necessary to see something for what it truly is and not what it wishes it to be.

Paul E. Jacobson Vice President, Corporate Communications Starz Encore Group LLC Englewood, Colo.

Multichannel News Washington bureau chief Ted Hearn responds:

I won't attempt to answer all the points raised in the letter regarding the recent trip to the People's Republic of China by the FCC's Deborah Lathen that Encore International funded. But at least a few of them merit clarification.

The letter, for instance, suggests that the item omitted the fact that the FCC approved the trip. In fact, the item quoted an FCC spokeswoman stating that the trip had FCC approval.

On the matter of conflict of interest, the letter states that Encore International and Starz Encore Group LLC never had an "issue" come before Lathen as Cable Services Bureau chief. I suggest the writer review Starz Encore's comments in CS Docket No. 98-120, filed Oct. 13, 1998.
Those comments, initially reviewed by Lathen and her staff, urged the FCC not to require cable operators to carry analog and digital broadcast-TV signals to avoid a "devastating" impact on cable programmers such as Starz Encore.

Also, last year AT&T Corp. had to name three new directors to serve on the board of Liberty Media Group, the corporate parent of Starz Encore Group. AT&T's nominees required and obtained Lathen's written approval.