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Settlement is expected in cable antitrust probe

Cable television competition could intensify and expanded programming become available to viewers under expected settlement by seven companies of a multiyear antitrust investigation of the industry.

New York Attorney General Robert Abrams was expected to announce today settlement of the investigation by 40 state attorneys general.

At the heart of the probe are charges that cable networks have sought to squeeze out competition from smaller companies relying on newer technology, such as wireless, microwave and small dish.

The small companies say major cable companies do this by blocking access to channels carrying movies, sports and other popular fare.

Liberty Cable Television, for example, has been charging New York City consumers less than competitor Time Warner but has been unable to obtain Court TV from Time Warner, parties close to the case confirmed.

The New York Times reported today that under the settlement the cable companies would be required to provide equal access to such entertainment to their newer-technology competitors.

TCI, TW in deal

The Times said those involved in the settlement included Tele-Communications Inc., the nation’s largest cable operator; Time Warner Cable, the second largest; Cox Enterprises; Comcast Corp.; Viacom Intl.; Continental Cablevision; and Newhouse Broadcasting.

CNN, Turner Network Television, Showtime, HBO, the Discovery Channel, MTV and VH-1 are among the programming that the companies control.

Telephone calls to the homes and offices of major cable company attorneys Tuesday night were not answered. Many cable industry executives were at the National Cable Television Assn. convention in San Francisco.

Dueling between the major cable companies and their newer-technology rivals marked congressional action on a cable television regulatory bill that Congress enacted by overriding President Bush’s veto.

That law broadly requires cable companies to provide equal access to popular programming to their competitors. But parties to the case who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the settlement would impose even tighter restrictions to prevent the companies from squeezing out their rivals.

Although the investigation has focused on the application of antitrust laws to the position of the cable companies, no lawsuit has ever been filed by the attorneys general. In such investigations, however, the possibility of a lawsuit can be sufficient to prompt the parties to a settlement.

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