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Cable Lobbies Part Ways on Program Access Rules

The little cable lobby has asked the FCC to retain its restrictions on exclusive program contracts while the big cable lobby says boot the ban.

The American Cable Association, which represents smaller cable operators, filed comments with the commission asking it to guarantee continued access to programming. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association said the rules that guarantee such access were no longer necessary because of the amount of competition in the market. NCTA members are generally the bigger players in the cable industry. The ACA's 1,100 member serve around 8 million subscribers, or approximately one-third as many as Comcast, the nation's largest cable company.

The program access rules, established in the 1992 Cable Act, were created to prevent a handful of big cable companies from owning all the good programming. Time Warner companies, for example, serve 14.5 million cable subscribers and majority own at least six of the most widely distributed basic cable networks in the United States. Program access rules force Time Warner to make those networks available to ACA members and other video providers.

The NCTA contends there's no reason Time Warner or any other cable company that owns networks would withhold them from other distributors because those other distributors comprise a hefty chunk of TV-viewing U.S. households. The program access rules were originally established so direct broadcast satellite could get a foothold in the multichannel video market. DBS now has roughly one-third of that market, the NCTA pointed out.

The rules are scheduled to expire in October. The FCC initiated a proceeding in February to determine if the they should be extended. The ACA said they should.

"Without protections... small and medium-sized cable operators risk becoming casualties in the war between the major MSOs, DBS providers, and the major phone companies," the ACA said in its filing. The lobby of little cable operators noted that AT&T and Verizon have plenty of money to start networks of their own, and effectively shut ACA members out.

ACA President and CEO Matt Polka said, "No media conglomerate, including the 'new entrant' former Bell companies, should be able to acquire 'must-have' programming on an exclusive basis."