Kids' Net Coming With a Big Catch

Look out, Discovery Kids and WAM! America's Kidz Network: Competition could be coming in a big way from a company that said it wants to launch an ad-supported national broadcast network aimed at kids in their early teens and younger.

But DIC Entertainment Corp., the Burbank, Calif.-based proponent of the new channel, said the venture won't get off the ground unless the Federal Communications Commission requires cable operators to carry TV stations' multiple digital-programming streams.

Met With FCC

"The DIC Kid's Network is contingent on multicasting must-carry rules," according to a Nov. 4 FCC filing by the company.

The filing was intended to document a meeting the day before between DIC chairman and CEO Andy Heyward, FCC member Jonathan Adelstein and Adelstein's aide, Johanna Mikes Shelton. Jordan Goldstein, media adviser to commissioner Michael Copps, also attended.

DIC's proposal is among the first to suggest that a national programming service could commercially exploit broadcasters' ability to divide their digital spectrum into several channels.

DIC did not discuss in the FCC filing such issues as start-up costs, revenue projections, or affiliate contracts.

Heyward did not return a reporter's call.

The cable industry is fighting a multicast mandate, claiming such a regulation would give DIC Kid's Network access by default while cable programmers, which do not have FCC broadcast licenses, would have to bargain with MSOs for carriage.

The commission plans to rule before the end of the year.

"DIC's proposal looks like an attempt to use government regulation to gain an unfair advantage over the dozens of cable networks that are already producing quality children's programming," Brian Dietz, spokesman, National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said.

Some broadcasters are convinced they have the issue won, claiming Republicans Kevin Martin and Kathleen Abernathy will join Democrat Michael Copps to form a majority.

"I know the broadcasters believe that. I don't believe it," a senior FCC official said last week.

Abernathy told reporters last week that even if the FCC has authority to mandate multicast must-carry, she needs to decide whether the burden would violate the First Amendment rights of cable operators and programmers.

"That's the $60,000 question. Is it constitutional first of all?" Abernathy said. "I haven't decided."

DIC claimed it can launch a 24-7 digital network on the support of a library that includes episodes of Inspector Gadget, Strawberry Shortcake, Carmen Sandiego, Speed Racer and Madeline. The network would also offer "significant educational content and feeds in Spanish."

DIC said it currently supplies 400 TV stations with children's educational and informational programming to help them meet current federal regulatory requirements. Many of them have shown an interest in launching the kids network.

"They see its commercial possibilities in the long term, and they understand that this will be an effective means for helping to accelerate the speed of digital penetration and to provide a public service to important elements of the audience," DIC told the FCC.

Ad Base Needs It

Mandatory cable access is imperative, DIC added, because an ad-funded network can't profitably serve off-air-only viewers unless it has a guarantee of reaching the vast majority of cable's 70 million homes.

"Must-carry of the entire free portion of the broadcasters' digital channels is critical to the success of this proposal," DIC said.

Cable operators argue that every U.S. TV station is entitled to mandatory carriage of only one digital-programming stream, but only after stations demanding carriage have returned their analog licenses to the FCC.