A treaty to end a two-year war over copyright rules in the television industry was blown apart yesterday in an outbreak of verbal hostility at a joint Senate committee hearing.
And Assistant Commerce Secretary Bernard Wunder Jr. dropped another bomb on the "intensely regulatory" measure, H.R. 5949, saying that the administration probably would veto it in its present form.
The bill was attacked in testimony before the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees by former supporters and foes, who said it would be harmful to the interests of broadcasters -- particularly cable operators -- and program producers alike.
As it stands, the bill "could put us out of business," said cable television pioneer Ted Turner, president of Atlanta-based WTBS Superstation and Cable News Network. "This bill gives copyright holders the thing they want most, which is the ability to black us out, to make us drop long-distance signals," Turner said.
Others, such as Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, argued that the bill did not go far enough to protect the rights of team owners and others who provide the action for special events. Kuhn argued that Turner and other cable operators were trying to use raw political muscle to take away owners' rights to choose how, when, and by whom they wanted their games televised.
"The cable people have made it crystal clear to us that we do not have the political power to thwart them, and that, as long as we do not have that power, they will not deal with us," Kuhn said.
It wasn't supposed to be that way.
The compromise was stitched together in 1981 by commercial and religious broadcasters, cable system operators, and the movie industry. The House earlier this year approved the measure, which, with conditions, gives local cable systems the right to import programming from distant commercial stations into local markets.
Under the terms of the agreement, cable stations would have paid royalties to movie and other producers for the right to use their programs. But local commercial stations broadcasting in the same market as cable operators would reserve the power of syndicated exclusivity -- that is, the right to order cable operators to black out certain programs, such as sports events.
The agreement also gave public and religious broadcasters access to cable viewers by saying, in effect, that cable operators must offer their viewers the same kind of "free" programming available through other television broadcasts.
But a series of oversights when the bill was drafted, and a major ruling Oct. 20 by the congressionally created Copyright Royalty Tribunal (CRT), undercut the agreement. Critics say that the bill did not address the needs of sports team owners, direct-broadcast satellite operators whose signals bypass those of cable and commercial stations, and low-power-television-station operators who would like to increase their power by gaining access to cable systems.
But the biggest change, according to cable operators, was the CRT's October decision to increase by as much as $20 million annually the total amount of royalties that cable stations would have to pay to carry long-distance programming.
The CRT decision cancelled the long-distance-signal access granted to cable stations in the compromise bill, Turner said, adding that many cable stations would drop the signals rather than pay the additional costs.