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Fast Track

Bush Sends Mixed Signals On Indecency

President George W. Bush appeared to tell newspaper editors last week that he supports extending indecency standards to cable and satellite TV. That would have been big news, except that he didn't really mean it.

“Yeah, I'm for that. I think there ought to be a standard,” he said in response to a question following a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Although, at first, he didn't seem to quite understand the question, when it was repeated and clarified that the issue was cable and satellite, the President said, “I don't mind standards being set out for people to judge the content of a show to help parents make right decisions. The government ought to help parents, not hinder them.” Still, reporters weren't convinced that he understood the question. They were right.

According to White House spokesman Trent Duffy, what the president was actually endorsing was the House bill that would increase the fines on radio and TV indecency but does not address cable and satellite TV.

The president also last week argued strongly for self-regulation: “The final edit is a parent turning off the TV. The ultimate responsibility in a consumer-driven economy is for people to say, 'I'm not going to watch it,' and turn the knob off. That's how best to make decisions and how best to send influences.”

The president continued with what seemed a mixed message: “Look, we're a free society. The marketplace makes decisions. If you don't like something, don't watch it. And, presumably, advertising dollars will wither, and the show will go off the air. But I have no problems with standards being set to help parents make good decisions.”—J.E.

Verizon Customers To See Starz!

Verizon signed a deal with pay programmer Starz to carry its 13 movie channels on the telco's planned video system when it launches later this year. Starz, which is owned by Liberty Media, will deliver both East and West Coast feeds, plus some titles on-demand. The deal is part of Verizon's quest to secure a full lineup of programming for its systems, which aim to compete directly with cable and DBS operators. Verizon can buy pretty much anything it wants through the National Cable Television Cooperative, which resells programming to smaller operators. But the telephone company is trying to get better pricing by cutting deals with networks directly.—J.M.H.

TV Stations a Drag on Gannett Earnings

Gannett Co. Inc. posted weak results for the first quarter, with the company's TV stations dragging down an already sluggish newspaper operation. Not counting the positive effects of a midyear acquisition, Gannet's station revenues dropped 5% to $164.6 million, while operating cash flow dropped 13% to $66.4 million.

Gannett blamed the problem partly on the absence of political and football advertising (six of Gannett's 20 TVs are CBS affiliates, which aired the NFL football championship last year).

Car advertising also was down in the “mid-single-digit” percentage range for the quarter for broadcasting.

Companywide revenues, including Gannett's much larger newspaper operation, increased 4% to $1.8 billion. Operating cash flow increased 2% to $455.5 million.—J.M.H.

UPN To Launch Spears Reality Show

Tuesday, May 17 at 9 p.m. is zero hour for the debut of UPN's six-episode reality show featuring Britney Spears and new hubby Kevin Federline.

The half-hour show, which is billed as the story of their courtship and wedding complete with home videos, will kick off with an hour-long episode.

It will revert to its half-hour format the following week, when it will be followed by the debut of another new UPN series, The Bad Girl's Guide, starring Jenny McCarthy as one of three sassy, provocative women living in Chicago.

Drama Veronica Mars will exit the 9-10 slot following its May 10 finale. It will be on hiatus through the remainder of the May sweeps and likely beyond, since the still-unnamed Spears/Federline project runs six episodes.—J.E.

Danza Gets Major (Market) Help

The Tony Danza Show is picking up and moving. The pick-up is in Washington, where Buena Vista's freshman syndicated talker will now be carried on Fox-owned WTTG beginning this fall. It previously did not have an outlet in the nation's ninth-ranked market.

Danza will be moving up in Boston, where the show is being shifted from a late-night clearance on WCVB to a noon airing on Fox's WFXT. The show has also been picked up for the 2005-06 season on WGCL Atlanta, where it runs at 10 a.m. Danza has already been renewed for a second season in more than 120 markets covering 90% of the country. Season-to-date, Danza has a national rating of 1.3.

Danza had already gotten a boost from upgrades in L.A. and Chicago two months ago but has been hunting for an upgrade in Boston and a home in D.C.—J.E.

'Ambush' Whacked

Twentieth Television said last week that it is canceling Ambush Makeover, its low-rated personal-makeover strip. A mix of new episodes and repeats will air through Sept. 12. With almost 300 episodes in the can, Twentieth plans to offer the show as a library product.—J.F.

Media Appear To Trim Some False Weight-Loss Claims

The Federal Trade Commission has finally made it official: The media appear to be doing a better job of weeding out snake-oil salesmen.

As B&C reported back in February, a new FTC study on weight-loss advertising found that the number of such ads containing obviously false claims has dropped from over 50% in 2001 to 15% in 2004.

In 2003, the FTC asked the media to better screen out obviously bogus claims—for example, diet without exercise, sleep the pounds away. It held a seminar with industry representatives and issued a “red-flag” list of seven obviously false claims, then followed up with the 2004 study to gauge the results.

The study seemed to need about as many disclaimers as some diet ads, however.

It was confined to ads for products specifically targeted in the “red flag” initiative: ”nonprescription drugs, dietary supplements, diet patches, creams, wraps and devices.” Those are some major offenders, but the study did not include any ads for diets, prescription drugs, exercise equipment, meal replacements (breakfast shakes or bars), low-calorie foods, liposuction, or hypnosis.

In addition, TV was a relatively small portion of the survey—28 ads and only three long-form infomercials—so extrapolating it to a general decline in deceptive TV weight-loss claims is problematic at best, a point the FTC also made, saying “The decline in red-flag claims does not necessarily imply a decline in deceptive weight-loss claims in general.”—J.E.

Kevin Martin's Father Dies Suddenly

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was in Charlotte, N.C., Monday for the funeral of his father.

Richard Martin, 69, died suddenly over the weekend. Chairman Martin's office said the FCC chief was still planning to attend a breakfast session Tues., April 19 with National Association of Broadcasters President Eddie Fritts at the NAB convention in Las Vegas.

Anyone wishing to send a memorial for Richard Martin is asked to send a donation in lieu of flowers to Saint Gabriel's Catholic Church in Charlotte or to Charlotte Catholic High School.—B.M.

Fired Sinclair Critic Denied Unemployment Benefits

The Maryland Department of Labor has denied a claim for unemployment benefits filed by former Sinclair Broadcast Group political reporter Jon Leiberman, who was fired last fall after he spoke out against Sinclair's plans to air a documentary featuring Swift Boat Veterans' allegations against Sen. John Kerry.

Sinclair did not air the documentary but included parts in a news special, Stolen Honor.—A.R.

Armstrong Exits Comcast Board

Former AT&T Corp. Chairman Mike Armstrong is winding up his involvement with Comcast and is stepping down as a director.

Armstrong first joined Comcast as chairman in 2001 as a contingency of Comcast's $54 billion purchase of AT&T's cable operation. But he had no say in actually running the company and kept an office in New York rather than Comcast's Philadelphia headquarters.

Armstrong stepped down from that post in 2003 and is leaving the board in June. Armstrong will continue to collect a $900,000 annual consulting fee from Comcast for one more year and will remain “director emeritus.”

To replace Armstrong, Comcast has nominated Ed Breen, chairman and CEO of troubled Tyco International. Breen is one-time CEO of cable-equipment supplier General Instrument and briefly served as president of GI's new owner, Motorola.

Comcast's proxy statement shows that Chairman/CEO Brian Roberts—recently elected NCTA chairman—got $21.1 million in salary, stock and other compensation last year, up 66% from $13.2 million in 2003.—J.M.H.

Sony Picks DVD Sanitizer

Sony Corp. is the latest DVD manufacturer to license that technology's equivalent of the V-chip, according to the patent holder.

The electronics giant has signed a deal with Digital Choice of Texas for its various parental-control patents for “stored-media playback equipment,” including DVD players.

The technology allows users to restrict playback of violent or sexually explicit portions of DVDs or, in some cases, to substitute other prerecorded material if the DVD includes alternate scenes or both a rated and unrated version.

With the Sony deal, virtually every DVD manufacturer has licensed the Digital Choice technology, including Matsushita, Samsung, LG Electronics, Sanyo, Sharp and Orion.—J.E.

Cable Takes Bite Out of Crime

Cable theft is down by more than 50% in the past four years, according to a new study by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
The group cites the migration to digital platforms combined with industry efforts to crack down on thieves and, ideally, to convert them to paying customers.

Only 4.65% of homes passed stole analog cable service in 2004, down from 11.5% in NCTA's last survey in 2000. Premium is down even more, from 9.5% to 2.15%, according to NCTA.

The digital switch has meant more service security, said NCTA, with less than 1% theft of advanced services like VoIP (voice-over-Internet-Protocol phone service), digital cable, and internet access. But the industry is not ready to declare victory just yet.

NCTA says that theft still accounts for $4.75 billion in “unrealized revenue,” down from $6 billion in 2000, but still 8% of the industry's $57.6 billion total gross revenue in 2004. The study was a Frank Magid survey of cable operators for NCTA's Office of Cable Signal Theft.—JE

'Revelations' Rocks

For a show about the end of the world, NBC's new apocalyptic thriller Revelations got off to a great start. On April 13, part one of the six-episode limited series averaged a 5.2 rating/13 share in adults 18-49 and 15.6 million total viewers—NBC's best Nielsen marks for a Wednesday at 9 p.m. in more than six months. It was not enough, however, to unseat Fox powerhouse American Idol.

NBC set up Revelations with a Dateline on the controversial book The Da Vinci Code. The newsmagazine posted a respectable 3.4 rating/10 share in 18-49s and 10.8 million total viewers, its highest numbers in nearly six months.—A.R.


Peabody Awards competition, although other Fox units do (“Peabodys Snub Big Four,” 4/11, page 26).