A Senate Commerce Committee hearing on access to video programming turned into the Ted Stevens and Byron Dorgan show, with supporting industry players arguing for and against tiering, importing out-of-market broadcast signals, and placing conditions on the sale of bankrupt cable operator Adelphia to Time Warner and Comcast.
Stevens and South Dakota Democrat Dorgan were the only two senators to show up for the afternoon hearing, with meetings on both sides of the aisle, said an apologetic Stevens, the Republican from Alaska who chairs the committee.
They were outnumbered three to one by the witnesses: Ben Pyne, VP, affiliated sales and marketing, for Disney and ESPN Networks; American Cable Association President Matt Polka; WDBJ Roanoke, Va., GM Robert Lee; Comcast VP, external affairs, Joe Waz; Dan Fawcett, executive VP, programming, for DirecTV; and Doron Gershein, president of The America Channel.
Those witnesses followed expected paths:
Pyne argued for retransmission consent as a fundamental American business principal, argued against à la carte cable pricing as a threat to its business model, and argued that it does not require cable operators to take bundles of programming.
Polka countered that escalating retrans deals and programming bundles have forced smaller cable operators to take channels they don't want and pass that cost on to consumers, resulting in what he said was "$500 million-$800 million in added cost to basic cable."
He said Congress could help smaller operators by allowing them to shop for out-of-market TV signals if the local station owner is charging too much.
Lee said that Polka wanted it both ways, pointing out that operators complain about paying broadcasters for signals but then say carriage of additional channels is also unreasonable. Cable's reluctance to pay cash for broadcasters' channels is what prompted the multiple-channel deals, he said.
Not surprisingly, Waz argued against conditions on the Comcast merger, while Fawcett said they were necessary to keep Comcast from monopolizing access to local sports nets, as he claimed it has done in Philadelphia, Boston and Charlotte, N.C. Waz said sports was available to satellite operators in Boston and Charlotte, and that in Philly, about 100 games from various pro teams were available over broadcast
Gershein also argued for conditions on the merger, saying Comcast has kept his independent network off its systems, and that, given Comcast's market power, access is crucial to his success. He said it has taken only five months to get carriage on six telcos representing potentially 90% of the country, while in three years he has been able to gain almost no cable carriage.
Waz countered that was more of a comment on the quality of his channel than anything else. He said that, if an independent channel has attractive programming, name talent, and financing, it can get noticed.
The senators who didn't attend will get to ask questions of the witnesses in writing.