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NAB on AOL-TW offensive

The National Association of Broadcasters this week will consider asking the FCC to impose strict conditions on Time Warner's merger with America Online, when the organization's TV Board holds a conference call Wednesday.

Among the ideas under consideration, according to industry sources, are requiring Time Warner cable systems to carry the digital signals of local TV stations. Board member Walt Disney Co., parent of ABC, also is pushing the FCC to prohibit AOL-Time Warner from discriminating against unaffiliated content providers on either the primary cable system or on broadband Internet service.

NAB officials stressed that there has not yet been a decision to weigh in on the merger, much less which specific actions would be recommended. "The whole issue of AOL-Time Warner will be decided by the board, including whether the merger approval should be linked to anything," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.

The NAB did not file reply comments to the FCC by a May 11 deadline. Disney, BellSouth, the Association for Maximum Service Television and several municipal governments, along with Time Warner itself, did weigh in on the deal last week.

Disney, which two weeks ago called a truce in its fight with Time Warner over carriage of ABC and other channels, is leading a high-profile lobbying battle to prevent AOL-Time Warner from giving preferable treatment to Time Warner networks. Disney officials also warn that merging the world's largest Internet provider with the second largest cable system in the U.S. would create a company that will control the broadband pipeline.

"Nothing could be more harmful than closed distribution platforms used as vehicles to steer consumers to affiliated content and services," Disney officials told the FCC. "Only by spelling out what is acceptable and unacceptable conduct in this marriage, is there any hope that it will be a good one for American consumers."

Many broadcasters may be motivated by old-fashioned dislike for Time Warner-a company with which several have frequently clashed over issues such as retransmission consent and carriage of broadcaster signals for electronic program guides-rather than a sense of threat from AOL.

"There's a big difference between Time Warner, which has been at the throats of broadcasters for years, and companies like AT & T and Comcast," said one industry source, who asked not to be named. "There is a lot of sentiment for beating up on Time Warner."