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Stevens Pledges Retrans Hearing

With an eye toward reining in programming costs for small cable operators, Senate Commerce Committee Co-Chairman Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) promised to investigate whether retransmission consent rules give content owners too much leverage to charge extravagant prices to operators in small and rural communities.

Stevens was "promising to the choir" in remarks to the American Cable Association, which represents just the type of operators whose costs he wants to control. Stevens said he thought that the small and rural cable operators are being charged 30%-50% more their programming.

Without committing himself to changing the rules, Stevens pledged to hold a hearing on retransmission consent this year.

The rules, created as an alternative to must carry, allow broadcast networks that also own cable programming to either demand cash for carriage of their TV stations or to insist that operators also carry their cable channels as part of the deal.

Commenting on the original retrans rule, Stevens said "We were trying to help the over-the-air broadcasters. We weren't trying to arm owners of content."

Stevens continued to equivocate on how he will push to clean up cable programming.

Stevens has suggested applying broadcast indecency rules to cable, then promoted mandating a family tier as another way to go. Monday he said he is now learning that even that may not be economically possible, but "we ought to come as close to it as we can."

Asked for clarification by reporters later, Stevens said there may not be a need for rules at all and that he would press the industry to come up with a voluntary tiering approach on its own.

Stevens continued to say he believes a DTV deadline bill and telecom revamp legislation can pass this year. "I think we're going to have a good year for communications in Congress," he said.