Bells Eye D.C. After Texas Loss

SBC and Verizon are turning to Washington as their best hope for getting into the TV business after Texas legislators killed their bid to get a statewide cable franchise. The two phone companies want to avoid the standard but cumbersome process of applying for a cable franchise in every city in America. They had hoped Texas would be the first of many statewide franchises, but Texas cable lobbyists convinced Lone Star state lawmakers that phone companies would abuse the license by serving only higher-income communities and neglecting less-profitable poorer neighborhoods.

The Texas defeat dampens chances that other states will eliminate the need for local-franchise requirements. Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, is glad to see the battle moving from statehouses to Capitol Hill. “It is not appropriate for any one state to unilaterally revise a federal statute with such broad implications in a piecemeal fashion in order merely to serve the business interests of one or two companies,” he says.

Now the phone companies are asking Congress and the FCC to set a national policy for granting permits to companies that will bring broadband and pay-TV competition to cable. The Bells' aim is to establish nationwide standards for franchise fees and service obligations that would apply to every market while eliminating lengthy negotiations with local governments.

Media Is Soft on Bush, Conyers Says

Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, charges that big media, especially cable news channels, are giving the Bush administration a free pass by focusing on celebrity news and other “trivial matters” rather than examining White House policies.

Conyers bases his assertion on a new Congressional Research Service (CRS) survey of cable news' treatment of important or high-profile stories. CRS gathers data at lawmakers' request to help them write bills or prepare for hearings. Conyers used the sampling to show that cable news outlets gave big play to some inconsequential stories while largely ignoring a lot of news casting Bush administration policies in a bad light.

For instance, says CRS, April 28 revelations of a British government memo indicating that intelligence services had concluded prior to the start of the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction were ignored by CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports and Anderson Cooper 360, MSNBC's Countdown With Keith Olbermann and Fox's Big Story. Days later, those same shows were leading or devoting a lot of time to the saga of the runaway bride.

“All you need to do is turn on the television, open up the paper, or listen to the radio to appreciate the extent our so-called 'fourth estate' has fallen,” Conyers complained at a forum attended by only a few Judiciary Committee Democrats.

FCC To Nix TV-Set Maker's Pleas

At its June 9 meeting, the FCC is expected to dismiss TV-set manufacturers' pleas to delay a July 1 government deadline for building digital tuners into half of their most popular models.

The Consumer Electronics Association asked the FCC to delay the 50% quota for TVs with 25- to 36-inch screens, arguing that consumer demand for that many digital sets hasn't arrived yet. As an enticement to dropping the 50% deadline, the trade group offered to move up the deadline for building tuners into 100% of sets that size to March 1, 2006.

Broadcasters, which want large numbers of digital-ready sets on the market as quickly as possible, sparked a war of words with CEA, whose members are mostly Asia-based electronics companies, by urging the FCC to reject delay on behalf of a bunch of “offshore receiver manufacturers.”

The expected FCC defeat surprises CEA spokesman Jeff Joseph, but he says the TV manufacturers have begun shipping DTV-ready sets in numbers large enough to meet the July 1 deadline.