FCC JAMS CABLE LOCK

Probe focuses on claims of program hoarding

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission signaled Thursday that it is going to take a close look at accusations by the telephone companies and DBS providers that cablers are hoarding programming to ward off competition.

In an effort to pry open cable’s lock on a handful of programming services, including MSNBC, TV Land and some regional sports services, the FCC proposed Thursday to allow cable competitors access to affiliate contracts and other documents that detail the terms and conditions of programming agreements.

While there are rules on the books that prohibit programmers from discriminating against cable’s competitor in pricing or access, Ameritech, the Chicago-based telco, has claimed that it is difficult to prove its case without access to internal documents.

There’s a catch

Under current rules, cable systems can make exclusive deals if they do not hold an ownership interest in the programming. For instance, Viacom, which no longer owns cable systems, can grant exclusive deals. But Time Warner, which owns both programming and cable systems, may not. In addition, the FCC proposed assessing damages against a cable programmer that is found to be in violation of the program access rules.

In a direct blow to Comcast, the FCC also said it wanted to rescind one provision of the program access rules, which allows cablers to keep programs exclusive if they do not put it up on a satellite. Comcast has used the provision to block DirecTV’s access to its new regional sports network SportsNet. The regional sports service owns the rights to Philadelphia’s basketball, hockey and baseball teams.

DirecTV has filed a complaint against Comcast at the FCC, charging that Comcast is exploiting the provision of the program access rule in an effort to block competition in the Philadelphia marketplace.

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