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Washington Watch

ACA asks for retrans inquiry

The trade group for independent cable operators last Tuesday asked the FCC to investigate retransmission-consent practices of the broadcast networks and TV-station groups. The American Cable Association argues that broadcasters are leveraging franchises' desire to carry local TV stations to force carriage of affiliated cable nets. "Increasingly," ACA said, "a few media conglomerates—powerful players like Disney/ABC, Fox/News Corp., and GE/NBC—are pulling the strings behind local retransmission-consent negotiations."

The filing coincided with stations' deadline for either electing must-carry or entering retransmission-consent negotiations with local cable franchises. The next carriage cycle begins Jan. 1. ACA members are cable systems not affiliated with multichannel programmers.

DTV bill on hold

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) will wait until the next Congress before introducing formal legislation aimed at speeding the DTV transition. Opposition voiced at a hearing last week to many provisions in a discussion draft floated by Tauzin and ranking Commerce Committee member John Dingell (D-Mich.) demonstrated that lawmakers face the same difficulty settling many inter-industry disputes that FCC officials have faced.

"Hopefully, we can improve the bill after hearing from all affected parties," said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson.

Ergen's last stand

With the FCC commissioners expected to make a decision on the EchoStar/DirecTV merger within the next several weeks, EchoStar Chairman Charlie Ergen is expected to make a last-ditch effort to please regulators. FCC sources confirm that the commissioners have received a staff recommendation reportedly nixing the deal.

The Justice Department staff came to a similar conclusion two weeks ago, according to published reports.

Hundt pitches broadband subsidy

Former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt told the Senate Commerce Committee last week that the government needs to step in to subsidize the broadband rollout. Just as Herbert Hoover stepped in to build roads to drive the adoption of the automobile, he said, the government needs to step in to help subsidize the underlying broadband network. Hundt, now a partner in consulting firm McKinsey & Co., said a subsidy would represent a fraction of federal spending on roads.

Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) asked Hundt whether he would fund that subsidy with spectrum auctions. Hundt was noncommittal, saying he would "defer" to Hollings.

'The Torch' passes

Broadcasters will shed few tears at Sen. Robert Torricelli's decision to drop a bid to retain his New Jersey seat. He was a key proponent of campaign-reform legislation that would have drastically discounted the rate stations can charge federal candidates for ad time.

A Torricelli-authored amendment passed the Senate in 2001 but was defeated in the House early this year. Without "The Torch" to carry the torch for the amendment, its future appears doubtful.

NAB paints radio rainbows

Just a week after the FCC launched a sweeping review of media-ownership rules, the NAB said it will hire a media-relations firm to pitch the nation on the bright side of radio ownership. It may even have some new ammunition in the FCC's just released ownership studies (see Top of the Week). The reportedly $250,000 campaign will be aimed at countering industry critics who say consolidation has put radio in the hands of a few corporate giants interested only in promoting a handful of megastar pop acts.

The NAB campaign will point out that there is more diversity than there was five years ago, citing more Hispanic radio and more subformats such as alternative rock. The campaign also will note that there remain more than 4,000 radio owners vs. roughly 400 newspaper owners and five major record labels.

"We thought it was time to engage in counter arguments on the industry's behalf," explained NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.

Still on hold

Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) last week called it "unforgivable" that nomination of Jonathan Adelstein (above) to the open FCC seat continues to languish, and he pledged to bring up the issue on the floor in the near future. Dorgan used the opportunity of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on broadband deployment to say that he believes the FCC needs "a full complement of commissioners" to deal with the important decisions before it.