Lieberman Doesnt Thrill Cable Execs

While political pundits were hailing the selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) as the Democratic party's vice-presidential nominee last week, some cable executives harbored concerns about an Al Gore-Lieberman administration, given the latter's past criticism of the industry.

Lieberman has been a vocal critic of cable for years, reaching back to his days as Connecticut state attorney general from 1982 through 1988. He accused cable operators of gouging consumers, advocating rate regulation at the federal and local level. Lieberman continued his anti-cable campaign when he reached the Senate in 1989.

"He was really concerned about rates and the lack of competition and choice," said John Nakahata, a Lieberman Senate aide from 1990 through 1995. "It was a straight consumer issue for him."

Eight years ago, he supported the override of President Bush's veto of the 1992 Cable Act-an effort spearheaded by then-Sen. Gore (D-Tenn.) to reregulate the cable industry after six years of relative rate-setting freedom.

Four years later, Lieberman's attitude toward cable hadn't changed. He remained a cable-rate regulation proponent at a time when Congress was moving to deregulate the industry and to open video and communications markets to all players.

In June 1995, during Senate debate on a landmark telecommunications bill, Lieberman offered an amendment that would have pegged the reasonableness of cable rates to the rates charged by systems facing effective competition.

Cable lobbyists said Lieberman's approach would have allowed the Federal Communications Commission to cut rates even deeper than the 17 percent reduction the agency ordered in 1993 and 1994.

Under intense lobbying pressure from cable, the Lieberman amendment was defeated, 67-31. Lieberman emerged from the Senate chamber shaking his head in disbelief that in the space of four years, cable was about to undo the rate controls he had helped to impose in 1992.

Lieberman voted against the Senate-passed version of the bill, but he voted for the final law agreed to by the House-Senate conference committee Feb. 1, 1996. The law deregulated upper-tier cable rates effective March 31, 1999.

Asked about Gore and Lieberman topping the Democrats' 2000 presidential ticket, National Cable Television Association spokesman David Beckwith said the NCTA would not comment.

But BET Holdings Inc. chairman Robert Johnson said that while Lieberman was a "good choice" for the Democratic Party, he's concerned about Lieberman's views with respect to cable and the entertainment industry.

"I respect his opinion, but I have some concerns, and I do plan to have some discussions with President [Bill Clinton] and Vice President [Gore]," Johnson said. "Lieberman is very much concerned about the moral question concerning entertainment and, being an elected official, his first instinct is to regulate."

Some in the cable industry were hoping Gore would pick Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who supported cable deregulation in 1996. Kerry's brother, Cameron, is a litigation and cable attorney in the Boston office of Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo P.C., which represents Cablevision Systems Corp. and AT & T Broadband.

Despite his hostility to cable, Lieberman has some friends and donors in the industry.

According to The Center for Responsive Politics, since January 1999, ESPN anchor Chris Berman has given Lieberman's Senate campaign $200; Paul Cianelli, president of the New England Cable Television Association, has given $250; and Joe Waz, Comcast Corp.'s vice president of external affairs, has given $1,000.

And political-action committees for Comcast and Viacom Inc. have given Lieberman $5,000 and $1,000, respectively.

In addition to cable, Lieberman has been an ardent foe of Hollywood, telling the industry that if it didn't cut back on violence-laced films, records and video games aimed at a young audience, it could expect censorship laws spurred on by an angry and emotional public.

He pressed for the V-chip (which was included in the 1996 law) and, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), pressured the broadcast and cable industries to create and use a TV-rating system that parents could use to shield their kids from sex and violence on the tube.