Capital Watch

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Deal Blasts Tiers

Frustrated that his à la carte cable bid won't pass this year, Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) went after big media companies. During a hearing that examined whether cable systems should sell networks individually, Deal charged that the current practice of selling only fixed bundles of channels is untenable. "If that same philosophy applied everywhere, candy stores would be required to sell marijuana," he said. Many à la carte supporters believe single-channel sales will lower cable bills, but Deal's goal is to give families power to reject racy channels. He blamed "five or six mega-production" conglomerates for the problem. He blasted Time Warner CEO Richard Parson for musing that à la carte supporters must have "beans in their noses." Deal said cable execs should explain why families who want to watch Nickelodeon must also buy Spike TV's Stripperella. House Commerce Committee leaders Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.), are waiting for an FCC study, due in November. But they take seriously the industry's warnings that à la carte will kill weaker channels.

Nextel, Broadcasters Work Together

Broadcasters are cheering the FCC's controversial decision to hand wireless company Nextel Communications a coveted patch of frequencies. Local broadcasters use some of the channels that Nextel would get to transmit news coverage from remote locations. Nextel has promised to compensate TV stations for the cost of buying new digital equipment needed to make live remotes on a smaller chunk of spectrum. "This demonstrates what industry can do when it works together," says David Donovan, president of DTV trade group MSTV.

Even before the Nextel plan was approved, broadcasters were obligated to begin relinquishing a portion of their remote-newsgathering channels this year. The total cost to the TV industry for buying new or returning existing newsgathering equipment is estimated at $512 million. With wealthy Nextel promising to pay up, stations are relieved.

Strange Bedfellows

Americans For Tax Reform (ATR), headed by deregulatory GOP operative Grover Norquist, and Media Access Project (MAP), which wants tougher regulation of the media business, aren't natural allies. But they found common ground in the fight over satellite-TV providers' right to bring distant network channels into local markets. ATR and MAP believe the move will give viewers a reason to buy DTV sets and will speed the day when stations must surrender their old channels to the government. Broadcasters oppose the request. Is it odd for left-leaning MAP to join forces with a group that opposes it on nearly every other issue? Says MAP Associate Director Harold Feld, "People on the right and the left believe it's important that broadcasters hand back the analog spectrum." Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.) last week introduced a bill giving DBS the extra rights.

Burns' PBS Plea

PBS documentary king Ken Burns challenged the notion of some GOP lawmakers that public TV is a "hotbed" of liberal bias. Noncommercial stations, he said during a Senate hearing on public-TV funding, are "essentially conservative institutions," often "too middle of the road" and certainly not prone to "thinking outside the mainstream." Burns conceded that there have been liberal programming agendas, but he argued they have been balanced by shows like William F. Buckley's Firing Line and its decades-long run.

In his pitch for continued funding, Burns eloquently transformed the tin cup he was holding into a chalice. None of his acclaimed films could have been made for commercial television, he said. Ad-free public broadcasting "gives us attention and memory amid the cacophony of the marketplace." With advertising interruptions, he said, "we do not learn, remember or care."

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