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Capital Watch

Pro Choice

Washington's indecency assault could hit cable—but not with fines for raunchy shows. Instead, cable could lose its fight against "à la carte" pricing, which would require systems to sell programming on a channel-by-channel basis, not as multichannel tiers, the current model. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain endorsed the idea, even as he was persuading colleagues not to add an à la carte mandate to its anti-indecency legislation. He wants it tackled in a separate bill. Consumer groups have touted à la carte as a way to cut cable bills and empower parents, who don't want to invite racier nets like MTV into their homes just to get History and Discovery channels. Free-speech protections will protect cable from the wrath of indecency fines. À la carte, however, may be ready for prime time.

The First Shall Be Last

Lenfest's WMCN Atlantic City, N.J., wins a booby prize for being a good digital citizen. The independent station is the first to go all-digital and return its analog spectrum to the government. But all that its primacy garnered was ejection from Dish Network's channel lineup. Dish owner EchoStar dropped the station a year ago, despite being required to carry all the broadcast channels in the Atlantic City market—all the analog channels, that is. The FCC refused Lenfest's demand for satellite-TV carriage of WMCN's feed because it hasn't finished writing satellite carriage rules for digital.

Night Skies

Broadcasters say they can deal with the tricky technical glitches that create nighttime interference for AM digital stations. The NAB has asked the FCC to let all AM stations authorized to air analog at night add digital signals. At present, AM stations need special approval to do digital at night. Digital is expected to dramatically improve sound quality on AM, long the neglected stepchild of broadcasting. High-definition radio firm iBiquity Digital, the company that designed the FCC's chosen technology for radio stations to air a new digital signal simultaneously with the old analog one, has completed field trials of nighttime AM digital broadcasts.

Help Wanted

Miami has no more room for duopolies, but the FCC last week let Sonia Broadcasting to buy its second TV station there. A waiver allowed Sonia, which already owns WDLP, to buy WVIB for $2.8 million. The feds permitted the pairing because WVIC is a money-losing station and previous owner Hispanic Keys Broadcasting couldn't find an out-of-town buyer despite a decade-long search. According to market-research firm BIA, WVIB hasn't garnered a reportable share for four years. Also, it has no full-time sales staff and derives most of its income from infomercials. Sonia pledges to pay for WVIB's digital conversion and offer Spanish-language programming. Miami duopolies are already operated by CBS, NBC, and Univision.

Meat Grinders

Never watch sausage or laws being made, so goes the adage. We'll take the sausage factory. The Senate Commerce Committee last week gave a civics lesson on how ugly lawmaking can be. By 11-10, the panel approved an amendment to an anti-indecency bill, though no one could decide if the measure strengthened or weakened the FCC's power to strip licenses. Sponsor Ted Stevens couldn't explain. The confusion prompted Chairman John McCain to snap, "It would be nice if we knew what amendments say before we offer them." After the vote, flummoxed senators had second thoughts. "I don't think we came out with the right result," said supporter Kay Bailey Hutchinson (above). Later in the day, word came out: The amendment strengthened FCC power by making license revocations more likely after three violations.