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National Assn. of Broadcasters prez Eddie Fritts claims the collective clout of top cable companies is being used to dissuade TV stations from fighting for retransmission consent payments.

Fritts’ remarks came at a press conference here Wednesday on the eve of today’s deadline for broadcasters to opt for either must-carry or retransmission consent from local cable operators.

Must-carry/retransmission consent was a key provision included in the cable reregulation bill passed by Congress last year. It allows broadcasters to select either guaranteed continued carriage from the cable system, or the option of demanding payment for local station signals that previously were carried free of charge.

Stations opting for retrans will be taking a big chance, since cable operators are not obligated to pay for the broadcast signal, and since cablers may remove stations from the cable lineup if the two sides are unable to negotiate a retrans deal.

Fritts accused top cable multisystem operators such as Tele- Communications Inc. and Time Warner of operating “in a bullying fashion” in recent weeks by publicly stating they will not pay for broadcast signals. Fritts called cable’s efforts “a campaign… orchestrated and calculated to intimidate broadcasters not to opt for retransmission consent.”

Referring to the cable industry’s ongoing effort to limit the impact of the new rereg legislation, Fritts said: “You’ve got to give cable credit. They never miss an opportunity to take a hard line… in Congress, at the FCC and in the courts.”

Also in attendance at the press conference were Bill Ryan, head of Miami-based Post-Newsweek Stations; and Jim Babb, prez of Providence, R.I.-based Outlet Communcations. Both Post-Newsweek and Outlet have notified most cable operators they will demand cash payments for their TV signals.

Babb said “reasonable” compensation for his stations would be in the range of 5-60 cents per month per cable subscriber, a figure that he said is similar to what cable operators pay for cable networks such as USA and ESPN.

Both Ryan and Babb said they sense the local cable operators themselves are willing to engage in retrans discussions, but that top corporate exex at the largest MSOs are barring them from talks.

Chuck Sherman, senior veepee of TV with NAB, said survey after survey indicates that consumers believe local TV station programming has value. Sherman said top cable executives should be asking themselves: “If cable pulls the plug on broadcast programming, how many consumers are going to pull the plug on cable?”

Ryan predicted that antitrust suits will be filed against cablers if the hard-line stance against retrans payments continues.