Telco trio: Cablers hoarding programs

WASHINGTON — Americast, BellSouth and DirecTV complained to Congress on Tuesday that cablers are trying to hoard programming in an effort to impede competition in the multichannel distribution business.

The complaints fell on sympathetic ears in the House telecommunications subcommittee, where chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) played a key role in crafting the program access provision of the 1992 Cable Act. “I have some concerns that were shared by some of the witnesses,” Tauzin told reporters after Tuesday’s hearing.

The execs complained that cablers are tying up exclusive programming deals on key channels, including Viacom’s TV Land, Fox’s FX and valuable sports packages owned by Comcast and Cablevision Systems. The exclusive deals are being creating despite Congress’ intent in the 1992 Cable Act to ensure that cable’s competitors would have access to all available programming.

No stopping Viacom

Deborah Lenart, president of Ameritech New Media, noted that programming behemoth Viacom is no longer subject to the program access rules that only apply to companies that own cable systems and programming services. Since Viacom spun off its cable system business to Tele- Communications Inc. last year, there is nothing stopping it from giving exclusive deals to cablers.

Ameritech suspects, but can not prove, that Viacom has granted exclusive deals to incumbent cablers in two markets where the telco is trying to offer competition, said Lenart. “Based on our discussions with Viacom, it is reasonable to infer that there are exclusive contracts … precluding Ameritech from carrying TV Land in certain communities it serves,” said Lenart. She urged the Congress to broaden the program access law to cover all programming deals.

Another problem cited by telcos are efforts by telcos to circumvent program access rules, which apply only to “satellite-delivered” programming by delivering their programming via fiber optic cable. “BellSouth has already encountered this problem with Time Warner in its Orlando market,” said BellSouth’s William Redderson, group president of long distance and video services.

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