Small cablers ask FCC to block Disney-ABC merger

A group of 350 small cable TV operators has asked the FCC to block the Walt Disney Co.’s merger with Capital Cities/ABC, claiming that ABC has strong-armed small cablers into carrying ESPN2 and charged exorbitant rates for access to other ABC owned cable networks.

The petition from the Small Cable Business Assn. came on the deadline for groups to file comments at the FCC opposing Disney’s proposed $19 billion takeover of the Alphabet web.

As expected, two media watchdog groups also asked the FCC to block the mega-merger. In a joint filing, the Center for Media Education and the United Church of Christ asked that the takeover be approved only if Disney commits to hiking children’s educational programming on ABC.

The watchdogs recently filed a petition asking the FCC to block the Westinghouse purchase of CBS, but dropped the filing after Westinghouse pledged to beef up kids programming on the Eye web. The Westinghouse commitment prompted a storm of controversy, with FCC commissioner James Quello and GOP lawmakers accusing FCC chairman Reed Hundt of forcing kid-vid quotas on broadcasters.

Watchdog goals

“We’re asking Disney to… play a major leadership role in developing and airing more programs which harness the enormous power of TV as a positive educational force in children’s lives,” said Center for Media Education prexy Kathryn Montgomery.

Her group cited Disney’s KCAL-TV for having an allegedly lackluster interest in kids TV. After Congress passed a 1992 law requiring broadcasters to meet the educational needs of children, KCAL for an entire year aired only one kid-vid program, and that show was aired 5:30 a.m., the watchdog groups alleged. Though KCAL programming has improved, its kids shows still air mostly before 7 a.m., when children are still sleeping, they claimed.

The cablers’ petition involves a claim that both ABC and Disney “have consistently used then market power to deal unfairly with small cable operators.”

The small operators claim ABC charges small operators rates 30% to 60% higher for its cable networks ESPN, ESPN2 and Lifetime than the rate charged to large multi-system operators.

The small-cable group also claimed that during retransmission consent negotiations, ABC’s owned and operated stations often condition the right to carry the broadcaster with a requirement to carry ESPN2.

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