Billy Tauzin Sends His Own Signal

Commerce chairman tells stations how to get to yes on must-carry

Home shopping channels aren't Billy Tauzin's idea of a critical public service. Instead, he seems to consider them a negotiating chip in the battle over broadcasters' cable-carriage rights for digital channels.

Tauzin has endorsed broadcasters' bid for guaranteed cable carriage for most of the multiple broadcast channel streams that stations can cram into their digital frequencies. He drew the line, though, at some programming that he apparently deems less desirable, such as those shopping networks.

The message from the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman was conveyed in a roundtable he hosted Oct. 17 with TV-industry leaders.

Given that shopping channels already have must-carry rights in analog service and First Amendment attorneys predict the government won't be able to exclude them in the digital environment, Tauzin's position is seen by many observers as a warning to cable operators that they ought to strike a private deal with broadcasters over carrying TV stations' digital signals or face a much tougher federal mandate.

Tauzin's messages have gotten through before. Previous roundtables in combination with a draft DTV bill he and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) floated last year helped broker a deal over standards for cable-ready digital sets.

Tauzin's warning, made in a closed-door powwow with trade groups and corporate executives, called on cable to work out a deal that would give it some say over the type of programming it would agree to carry without subjecting individual stations to contract negotiations.

The Louisiana Republican's position is seen by some as an endorsement of the FCC's purported plan to rethink its longstanding resistance to expanding broadcasters' cable-carriage rights to digital and to require cable systems to carry more than the traditional broadcast channel they have been carrying in analog.

Several Washington sources say the FCC at its December public meeting will vote to require cable systems to carry any of the six programming channels broadcasters can fit into their allotted 6 MHz channel, as long as the shows also are offered free over the air.

Broadcasters, publicly anyway, aren't ready to declare victory lest Powell and his colleagues rethink their new position. Still, LIN Television lobbyist Greg Schmidt came close to a victory dance as he presided over a panel at the fall conference for the Association for Maximum Service Television.

"This highest and best use" of the broadcast spectrum, he mused when the Home Shopping Network's logo was flashed on a screen at his side. Though Tauzin's comments weren't mentioned specifically, the veiled reference was apparent to many of the broadcast and cable attorneys in the room.

"The Home Shopping Network has become HDSN," Schmidt said, meaning high-definition shopping network.

Not conceding that a loss at the FCC is a fait accompli, National Cable & Telecommunications Association General Counsel Neal Goldberg predicted cable would win the inevitable lawsuit. "I think you'd see a court throw that out."

National Association of Broadcasters regulatory general counsel Jack Goodman made the opposite prediction on grounds that the greatly expanded cable capacity afforded by the conversion to digital makes carriage even of multiple streams from a station less burdensome that carriage of a single analog channel.