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DIC Hatches Kids Channel Idea

Children's programmer DIC Entertainment last week floated an idea to build a channel by distributing it on digital broadcast spectrum. Of course, that could happen only if the Federal Communications Commission pushes ahead with digital must-carry rules.

In a letter to the FCC, DIC, which says 400 stations carry its syndicated fare, outlined a proposal to take its library, which includes shows like Inspector Gadget and Strawberry Shortcake, and build an ad-supported "over-the-digital-spectrum" kids network. The channel could also offer local content and Spanish-language programming.

The suggestion provides new fodder for the ongoing debate over digital must-carry and multicasting. If broadcasters succeed in gaining must-carry for their digital signals, they could multicast perhaps five different channels.

NBC Chairman Bob Wright, for one, has suggested NBC stations could use one channel for entertainment programming and one for local news, weather and traffic. Stations or station groups might also partner with a third party, like a DIC, and launch all-new channels.

Meanwhile, the idea of building a new channel on must-carry spectrum is enough to send cable operators—who already shudder at the mention of digital must-carry—over the edge.

Although DIC's letter says it "intends" to create the 24/7 network, "the idea is perhaps less important than the debate itself," said one insider. DIC provides kids programming to such station groups as Tribune, Fox, Sinclair, Viacom, Hearst-Argyle, Clear Channel, Emmis and Acme. Its shows help stations satisfy the FCC's mandate for educational kids programming.

Under the proposed rules, digital must-carry channels would get the broadest possible distribution on cable and satellite systems. So, if the DIC channel ever came to fruition and it made deals in most television markets in the nation, it could instantly become a big player in the cable children's programming business that Viacom's Noggin and Disney's Toon Disney are clawing to get to 50 million homes.

Insight Communications chief Michael Wilner says operators are obligated to carry a network's primary signal. But, he contends, broadcasters' farming out additional spectrum—provided operators were obligated to carry that—to a third party would create a new business model based on government mandates.

Broadcasters may see it differently. "It is certainly a viable idea," said Alan Frank, president and CEO of Post-Newsweek stations. "We could partner or affiliate with a network or service and provide something that would be valuable to your community."

If a DIC channel succeeded by means of digital must-carry, it would have an unfair advantage over existing kids cable services, says the National Cable Telecommunications Association. "All programmers—whether cable or broadcast—should compete on the merits of their content and not be hamstrung by unfair government mandates," said a spokesperson.

In its letter to the FCC, however, DIC Entertainment flips that argument around, faulting cable operators. "It is reasonably certain that cable operators will not, in the absence of a must-carry requirement, find it in their interest to reach a carriage accommodation with a service that competes with the children's-oriented services they are already carrying and in several cases affiliated with."