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Bell won’t hang up on showbiz

Bell Atlantic chairman and CEO Ray Smith won’t rest until the telco is a leading entertainment company.

Addressing the National Assn. of Broadcasters confab, Smith said he is committed to becoming a major player with or without Tele-Communications Inc.

“Merging with TCI was a means to an end — not an end in itself,” Smith said. As for the collapse of the $ 30 billion merger between the telco and cable giants, Smith — unlike his TCI counterpart John Malone — did not blame the Federal Communications Commission.

With FCC commissioner James Quello sitting in the front row, Smith said: “Jim , let me emphasize that it wasn’t the FCC. I won’t second guess your decision.”

Play key role

Smith also used his forum to let broadcasters know that in his vision of the so-called information superhighway, broadcasters will play a key role with a limitless future.

“With all the proliferation of new channels in the last 10 years, yours is still the most watched form of television today, and will remain so for a long time to come.”

Smith also said the telco-broadcaster relationship will not be a repeat of the broadcaster-cable relationship.

“Even if we develop our own programming capability, we still won’t be able to duplicate the infrastructure of news, weather, sports, and public-affairs programming that makes you such an indispensable part of the daily fabric of your viewers’ lives.” It is clear, Smith added, that “we want to deliver your programming over our video distribution networks.”

Smith said the telco is in talks with Hollywood programmers and several TV stations in the Washington, D.C., market on how to “repurpose” programming.

Among Smith’s proposals is an “echo” TV service that would repeat a broadcaster’s programming after its initial run. Broadcasters, he said, could get additional revenue if a viewer “could call up the local news when he gets home from work — not at the stroke of 6 — through an ‘echo’ TV service that gave you a second, third or fourth audience for the same programs.”

Bell Atlantic is already working on such an experiment in northern Virginia. Called “Stargazer,” the telco plans on offering video-on-demand services shortly. Along with local programming, Smith said he’d like to offer the service to Hollywood programmers.

Too much fiber

“There just aren’t enough New Jersey Bell safety films to fill up the fiber-optic pipeline,” Smith said.

There also will be a payoff for broadcasters. When TV stations were finally given the legal right to charge cable operators to carry their signals (retransmission consent), most were unsuccessful.”

With a second distribution system in the market in the form of a telco, “you’ll gain considerable leverage in negotiating the retransmission rights for your programs,” Smith said.

Smith also promised access to the infopike for all broadcasters, though he stopped short of saying the ride would be for free.

Both ways

But Smith did not just focus on why telcos need broadcasters. It works both ways, he said.

“In a world of alternative distribution platforms, it’s in the best interest of any information provider — whether it is television programs or data bases — to reach as many eyeballs on as many different platforms as possible.”

Besides programming, Smith said Bell Atlantic would be able to bring research capabilities into the mix that sounded like the end to the TV ratings system as it is presently known.

“What if you could test multimedia waters by taking advantage of the world’s most sophisticated audience research service — a platform that records everysingle button that the viewer pushes — making sure that you have not only the biggest audience, but also the right audience.”

Although it was an audience full of FCC and Capitol Hill staffers, Smith made it clear that the consumers, not the lawmakers, will decide how the information superhighway will ultimately work.

“The debate over policy issues that is going on right now is extremely important and extremely complex. But they will not be the defining force in our industry … the logic of convergence is simply too strong, the pull of digital technologies simply too relentless to support artificial boundaries,” Smith said.

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