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Rush hour

One can't expectorate these days without hitting a key cable issue.

The FCC will reconsider whether the program-access rules that have allowed the DBS industry to be fruitful and multiply should survive. The 1992 cable act allowed cable operators to raise their rates and start reaping the rewards of decades of capital expenditures, but it also required them to sell their programming to competitors. With the help of that law, two satellite-TV operators—DirecTV and EchoStar—have grown to be powerful rivals of cable. Program access did its job; it's time for it to fade into regulatory history.

At the Supreme Court, cable is squaring off against utilities over whether the cap on pole-attachment fees should apply to new services or be confined to traditional cable services. Removing the cap could mean millions, perhaps billions, in new levies on cable. Since a lower court threw out the caps, some utilities plan to increase the fee by a factor of five for cable operators offering Internet and other services. Congress ought to be filing an amicus
brief in support of reinstating the caps and against what amounts to a strong disincentive to rolling out high-speed internet services.

Meanwhile, back at the FCC, the agency handed the industry a big win, ruling that operators may charge subscribers the entire franchise fee, not just the portion applying to traditional video service. They can also list the fee as a separate item on bills. It's about time cable operators were able to let customers know where that money is going and whose ear to bend about it. But the FCC asked for something, too. It wants cable operators to inform subscribers of their options if an adult channel they don't subscribe to is insufficiently scrambled. Some do already, some don't. We think they all should.

Can we talk?

A couple more major syndicators have said they will exit the NATPE convention floor and set up at a Las Vegas hotel. The move is part of a trend that goes beyond TV. At businesses everywhere, bean counters are treating trade shows as a cuttable expense.

TV is in a recession. And as consolidated as it is, it may not need the huge exhibition halls for selling anymore. Nonetheless, a weakened NATPE isn't good. Broadcasters need gathering places, and NATPE, with its blend of behemoths and dreamers, domestic distributors and international entrepreneurs, is one of those. This should be the year broadcasters and programmers meet to discuss strategies for making-do with less and making programs that reflect, suddenly, a very different world.

Despite the urging of the president to get out and spend, it looks like broadcasters will sit home and save. We wish they would reconsider and come to Las Vegas, less lavishly, of course. Perhaps more than ever, the mass of media need to talk.

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