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NAB, ACA Exchange Cross-Country Barbs

Washington— Last week, two archrival lobby groups, the American Cable Association and the National Association of Broadcasters, each conducted their major annual meeting. The confabs were held in Washington and Las Vegas, respectively.

But even far away in Sin City, the broadcasters still managed to lob a nasty broadside — in a provocative print ad — at the cable group gathered in the nation’s capital. The NAB ad, in last Tuesday’s Communications Daily, accused the ACA of coming to the Capitol to urge Congress “to disrupt” retransmission-consent negotiations, a hot-button issue in the TV industry.

The ACA quickly cried foul, accusing the NAB of misleading allegations. ACA president Matt Polka charged the broadcasters were engaging in “scorched-earth” tactics and “personal attacks,” and just generally “being mean and ugly.”

Coincidentally, the day the NAB ad ran the ACA had taken out its own ad, anti-retransmission consent, in the Congress Daily AM. That ACA ad was planned before the NAB took its shot.

MORE TUSSLES AHEAD

The dust-up between the ACA, which represents independent cable operators with 8 million subscribers, and the powerful NAB may just be a prelude to even more contentious battles between the two organizations.

They are on opposite sides on several policy issues — including retransmission consent, mandated digital must-carry and the so-called downconversion of digital broadcast signals to analog — that are coming to the fore this year and next.

Outcomes on those matters could have a big financial impact on cable and broadcast alike.

“If they’re attacking me personally, I think it’s because they know they have something very, very big to lose,” said Polka, referring to the broadcast group’s ad.

He also claimed that feedback from the Hill was that the NAB ad was “a silly stunt.”

A year ago, NAB president David Rehr vowed that the “NAB must move from an organization that is perceived as being on defense … to one that is on offense.” And he made good on that promise last week at this year’s NAB convention, by not only running the ad jamming the ACA but also with his accusations — in fiery language — that cable was “discriminating” against broadcast.

In its ad, the NAB charged that the ACA was in the capital “urging Congress to disrupt the retransmission-consent process in favor of cable operators.” Retransmission consent allows broadcasters to demand compensation, including cash, in exchange for carriage of their stations.

The ad then cited a Jan. 30 article in Multichannel News quoting Polka about retransmission consent. “This is not something we can win on the academic merit and substance of our arguments,” the ad quoted Polka as saying.

Polka addressed the ad at the kickoff of ACA’s 14th annual Washington Summit that same morning, saying that his comment was taken out of context.

“It wasn’t a period at the end of my sentence — it was a comma,” Polka said. “What did I say after the comma? 'We win on the strength of our political message and the recognition on the part of Congress that there is a consumer need to be addressed.’ ”

In an interview later in the week, Polka accused the NAB of trying to mislead Congress and consumers.

“I’m not surprised, because they’re [the NAB] so arrogant that they think that they can just crush anybody,” Polka said. “Those kinds of tactics backfire because it’s not then about the credibility of your message. It’s about, 'We’re the 800-pound gorilla and we think we’re just going to squish you.’ ”

But the NAB defended its ad.

“I believe the quote is accurate and reflects the fact that Mr. Polka in his own words admitted that he can’t win this argument on the merits,” said NAB executive vice president of media relations Dennis Wharton.

REHR SEES DISCRIMINATION

The ad wasn’t the NAB’s only salvo at cable last week.

In Las Vegas at his group’s convention, Rehr also harpooned cable. He charged that cable operators are discriminating against broadcasters when they plan to drop the new digital channels that TV stations were bringing to market. Rehr called the practice “stripping,” a term he also used last June in a letter to Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

At the ACA Summit, Polka shot back, “We’ll discriminate everyday in favor of what’s right for our customers.”

In his address, Rehr also said that downconverting, which he defined as cable systems transforming broadcasters’ HD signals to standard definition, discriminated in favor of cable networks carried in HD.

“It’s part of the fist fight,” said Steve Brookstein, executive vice president of operations for Bresnan Communications.

The NAB’s demand that TV-station multicasts get carried by cable, not surprisingly, fell on deaf ears at the ACA.

“Who gave them a God-given right to have their content carried?” Polka asked. “They want us to carry product that’s not proven, that’s not compelling, by government fiat.”

The ACA was hardly a passive player last week: It took a jab at broadcast by running its own ad in Washington. It was a cartoon that depicted a “broadcaster conglomerate” — which receives “government-mandated” must-carry, free spectrum, basic tier carriage and retransmission consent — shaking cash out of a cable customer’s pocket.

When it wasn’t rebutting NAB attacks, the ACA took care of the business it came to Washington for in the first place: lobbying.

ACA TROOPS STORM HILL

Last Wednesday, about 225 ACA members had more than 180 appointments with lawmakers on the Hill to discuss retransmission consent and the looming July 1 ban on set-tops with integrated security.

The ACA is asking congressmen to write Kevin Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to ask that cable systems receive relief, such as waivers, so that they don’t have to start deploying pricey digital cable set-tops with separate security mechanisms July 1.

The Feb. 17, 2009 conversion to all-digital TV signals was also a big topic at the ACA’s summit. ACA members and a keynote speaker, U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher [D-Va.], all expressed concern that the public doesn’t understand the ramifications of the 2009 analog cut-off. It will render some TV sets useless – and make many consumers angry, Boucher and several ACA members predicted.

ACA members are seeking the right to “down-convert” broadcast’s digital signals to analog, so that consumers with analog TV sets can still watch their favorite broadcast shows come 2009.

Brookstein described the combination of the July 1 set-top deadline and the 2009 digital transition as a “train wreck.”

Ted Hearn contributed to this article.