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With $1.2M, Foes of Cable Bill Outspend Supporters

By Paul Farhi
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

If money talks in Washington, opponents of a cable television bill currently pending before Congress should have the floor all to themselves.

The opponents -- Hollywood producers and companies in the cable industry -- have funneled more than $1.2 million in contributions to members of Congress in the past 18 months, according to Federal Election Commission records. That is nearly 31/2 times the amount FEC records show has been given by the National Association of Broadcasters, the key supporter of the bill.

In particular, the cable industry, which has argued most vociferously against the bill to re-regulate its business, has been an aggressive contributor. Campaign donations from cable owners have more than doubled since the last election cycle. This mix of big money, big media and big-time politics comes to a head Tuesday when the Senate votes on whether to send the cable bill to President Bush for his signature or veto.

Both sides expect the Senate to pass the bill, but the question is by how much: If opponents can gain 34 votes, they may succeed in killing the bill, since it would show there isn't enough will in the Senate to override the president's anticipated veto.

The Senate passed a somewhat different cable bill in January by a 73-18 vote, but the early line is that support for the current legislation is slipping. And as the margin narrows, say the measure's supporters, campaign contributions may be a telling factor. "It is quite conceivable that on a (close) vote some will suggest that money made the difference, especially for any member who switches his or her position" from the last Senate vote, said James C. May, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Supporters of the bill, such as the Consumer Federation of America, have tried to frame the matter as a consumer issue since it addresses complaints about skyrocketing cable rates and poor service by placing cable operators under a new system of rate regulation and adds new customer-service requirements.

But the money flowing from the industry groups illustrates how the cable bill has also become a squabble among the giants of the media business.

Broadcasters, including the Big Three networks, are pushing the bill mainly because it will give local TV stations the right to demand payment from cable operators whenever the operator airs the broadcaster's programming -- a potential windfall for the broadcast industry.

The cable industry opposes this scheme, as do the major Hollywood studios, which argue that as the creator of the broadcast industry's programming, they -- not the broadcasters -- should receive royalties.

Reports filed by political action committees (PACs) associated with companies and trade groups involved in lobbying the cable bill show that contributions have increased as the issue has neared its culmination in Congress.

By far, the biggest single contributor has been the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), which gave $474,150 to congressional incumbents and candidates. The NCTA gave the maximum $10,000 contribution to senators on both sides of the aisle, but primarily to those on committees with jurisdiction over cable legislation, such as Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Robert Packwood (R-Ore.), and John Breaux (D-La.) all of whom sit on the Commerce Committee, which initiated the bill.

The cable lobby, consisting of the NCTA and five big cable companies, including Time Warner Inc., Tele-Communications Inc. and Turner Broadcasting System, spent $905,610, more than twice what these PACs spent during the last election period. The top recipient of cable's largess was Packwood, a staunch opponent of the bill.

A spokeswoman for the NCTA said, "I'm not comfortable commenting on the motives of it." She added, "The (campaign) filings speak for themselves."

Some senators -- Inouye, Packwood and Don Nickles, R-Okla. -- the maximum contribution from both the NCTA and its ideological rival, the National Association of Broadcasters. Nickles is important because he is chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, which formulates the party's congressional strategies.

"He takes contributions from a lot of people," said a spokesman for Nickles. "He is not representing one side of the issue or another in this case. I don't think he's made up his mind yet."

The broadcast and consumer lobbies say that besides trailing the cable business in contributions, their opponents have a personal connection to the White House. President Bush's son, Neil, works for a subsidiary of Daniels & Associates, a large cable industry company based in Denver.

Daniels is owned by Bill Daniels, a major contributor to the Bush campaign in 1988. Daniels declined to comment for this article, but both he and the White House have said previously that the hiring of Bush's son in 1990 bore no connection to the president's opposition to the cable bill.

Both sides also have singular access to a powerful lobbying tool: TV commercials. For weeks now, the broadcast lobby has aired TV spots on stations around the country that argue the bill will lower cable rates; meanwhile, cable companies have flooded cable stations with precisely the opposite message.

The lobbying scramble has pointed up some conflicts of interest. Broadcast and cable stations have refused to run their rivals' ads. And two Washington-area broadcast stations owned by movie studios, WTTG (Channel 5, owned by Fox Inc.) and WDCA (Channel 20, owned by Paramount Communications Inc.), have refused to run the broadcast industry ads, in apparent deference to Hollywood's interest.