Hundt creates cable bureau

Chairman Reed Hundt used his debut meeting at the Federal Communications Commission Monday to announce formation of a new cable TV enforcement division, and the FCC also asked 35 cable operators to respond to allegations of customer rate-goug-ing and illegal re-tiering.

Hundt’s first FCC session picked up where interim chairman James Quello left off: with an agenda dominated by Congress’ demand for carrying out the reregulation directives set forth under the 1992 Cable Act.

To meet that directive, Hundt settled on creation of an FCC Cable Service Bureau, a “one-stop shopping” venue to handle all cable rereg issues. Hundt said the bureau will be a test case for the FCC to “reinvent government”– a mantra chanted by the Clinton-Gore team during the 1992 campaign. He pledged a “commitment to take enforcement seriously and (to) act quickly.”

The cable bureau, which will be headed by acting director Sandy Wilson, intends to consolidate resources and streamline policy decisions. The bureau will be separated into three offices: a consumer protection division, a competition division and a policy and rules division. Ultimately, the FCC intends to staff the bureau with at least 240 employees.

Ironically, the FCC abandoned a stand-alone cable TV division in 1982 and placed all cable regulation under the Mass Media Bureau (which also handles TV and radio issues). Current Mass Media Bureau chief Roy Stewart praised the idea of setting up a separate cable division, saying the mandates of the rereg bill require “consistent, constant leadership.”

The National Cable Television Assn. said it supports formation of the cable bureau. Acting NCTA prez Decker Anstrom said he’s “encouraged by the priority Chairman Hundt has given to Cable Act issues. As cable companies continue to work hard to implement and comply with the act and its complex regulations, they need to know what all the rules will be.”

The FCC also fired off 35 letters Monday to cable systems accused of either violating a government-set price freeze, re-tiering regulated program services into an a la carte pricing format, or engaging in “negative option” billing practice whereby cable customers are billed for a service not requested.

The companies — which include Century Southwest Cable Television in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills — have 30 days to respond to the FCC missives. Last month, the FCC sent letters to 16 cablers accused of similar cable law violations. The FCC’s Wilson said the cable industry can expect a series of “rolling inquiries” to be forthcoming.

Finally, the commission announced adoption of a more “user-friendly” form that cable customers can fill out to complain about prices and programming.

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