Web exex rally for digital must-carry

FROM NATPE
NEW ORLEANS — Digital must-carry is a must-have for broadcasters, top station execs told FCC commissioners and a key Clinton administration telecom policy adviser Monday during an ALTV panel sesh.

“I feel like a race-car driver who has been given a Ferrari, and I’m at the starting line with no gas in my car. Must-carry is the gas,” said Kevin O’Brien, veep/general manager of Cox Broadcasting’s Fox affil KTVU San Francisco.

Other panelists echoed O’Brien’s assertion that local TV stations will be crippled if there is no mandate for cable operators to carry local stations in the digital era, as there currently is for analog signals.

Cable operators have vowed to fight digital must-carry, arguing that they should not be forced to set aside precious channel space for one or possibly more digital signals pumped out by each local broadcast station. “The Grand Inquisition” sesh during Monday’s Assn. of Local Television Stations confab gave FCC commissioners Susan Ness and Harold Furchtgott-Roth and the Commerce Dept.’s Larry Irving the chance to grill top broadcasting execs on a range of issues.

But the broadcaster panelists — Cox’s O’Brien, Tribune’s Dennis FitzSimons, Paramount’s Tony Cassara, United TV’s John Siegel and Sinclair’s Barry Baker — wound up giving the feds an earful on what they view as the archaic regulatory environment that governs their business.

To illustrate the point, Tribune Broadcasting prexy FitzSimons noted the increasingly competitive landscape of Tribune’s home base, Chicago. Cable giant Tele-Communications Inc., soon to be acquired by AT&T, serves some 90% of Chicago-area cable TV homes. Soon, TCI-AT&T will be offering telephone service and Internet access to its customers in addition to a range of subscription TV packages.

But digital must-carry was the dominant topic of the 90-minute exchange, moderated by Carol Melton, Viacom’s senior veep of government affairs, between the regulators and the regulated.

“All we’re saying with digital must-carry is, ‘Put us on the playing field. Don’t deny us the opportunity to compete,’ ” said John Siegel, senior veep of United Television.

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