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The Heat is On Cable, Again

Cable lobby chieftain Kyle McSlarrow may be wondering what part of "no" his opponents don't understand. The broadcast contingent is going gangbusters with a Capitol Hill campaign for multicast must-carry, while on the other flank, special interest groups are calling for a la carte channel pricing. Both were supposedly killed by the FCC in the last nine months.

The National Association of Broadcasters continued its must-carry offensive with print ads depicting cable companies as monopolistic gatekeepers depriving Americans of life, liberty and the pursuit of local weather feeds.

"With over-the-air digital television available in every market, local broadcasters can provide higher quality pictures and a lot more choices free of charge," read this week's ad featuring a perversely anthropomorphic TV remote with buttons configured in a smile. It was the second ad in as many weeks suggesting cable operators limit channel choice. "That means you might get a channel for 24-hour local weather, another with foreign language simulcast, and still another with expanded coverage of local news, entertainment or even high school sports."

But you'll never see them if cable and DBS hold sway, it goes on to say, because "they want you to see only what they own or produce themselves." The ad, which ran in several Hill newspapers, also noted that broadcasters are in town to chat with lawmakers. Indeed, representatives from Telemundo targeted Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) on behalf of los que hablan español, many of whom rely on content provided by over-the-air networks. (Coincidentally, a just-released study from New York-based Horowitz Associates finds that the English/Spanish-speaking community holds great growth potential for multichannel providers, giving nets like Telemundo a potential leg up in retrans negotiations. Thus far, however, Telemundo is not rolling those dice.)

The renewed charge for multicast must-carry comes just as the old cast of atypical bedfellows attempt to resuscitate a la carte channel selection.

The Consumers Union, along with the Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Digital Democracy and other liberal-leaning groups have lined up with the fervently conservative Parents Television Council, the American Conservative Union, the American Family Association and a bunch more to pelt Congress with letters calling for a la carte cable pricing.

This, from the liberals: "Although cable companies have begun making it possible for customers of some cable services to block unwanted channels, cable consumers still are forced to pay for those channels and thereby provide financial support to sustain programming they find offensive."

And from the conservative groups: "Why can you pick up the phone, order and pay for HBO if you want it, but can't pick up the phone, cancel and stop paying for MTV if you don't?... We are concerned about the raunch flooding the airwaves and outraged at being forced to take it and to subsidize it."

Much of the attack went down while McSlarrow's National Cable and Telecommunications Association team worked the Television Critics Tour at the Beverly Hills Hilton, where cable nets rolled out such irresistible titles as "Ambulance Girl," "Mo'Nique's Fat Chance" and "Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive," a new reality series in which celebrity "offspring" ride a 100-mile cattle drive in Colorado. Whether or not the shows are offensive because of vulgarity or plain inanity, they will all be carried on most expanded basic cable tiers because the FCC said fuggedaboudit to a la carte last November. The FCC decision followed a lobbying blitz by the NCTA that brought out everyone from the Congressional Black Caucus to Planned Parenthood of New York City and Church Ladies for Choice, all of whom argued that a la carte would strangle program diversity. (An examination of the lobbying effort can be found at The Center for Public Integrity.

The FCC also put the screws to multicast must-carry in February, but NAB President Edward O. Fritts simply responded, "in Washington, there are no final victories and no final defeats."

In related news, sales of Cohibas in Washington, D.C. have intensified dramatically.