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NAB Wants Warning-System Rules Changed

6/11/2000 8:00 PM Eastern

Washington-Citing a recent dispute over cable emergency-warning systems, National Association of Broadcasters CEO Edward Fritts has called for changes to an existing government rule.

In a letter to Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt, Fritts said he hoped to raise awareness about the Federal Communications Commission rule that allows cable companies to use their own safety warnings instead of those produced by broadcasters.

In the event of an emergency, cable companies that carry broadcast stations under must-carry or retransmission consent are not required to use broadcasters' emergency signals.

Fritts-who said the cable rule was intended for national emergencies, and not local ones-added that the policy failed to serve the Detroit community when more than 780,000 cable subscribers lost sound, pictures or both during a recent tornado situation.

Warnings from MediaOne Group Inc., Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable that ran in the Detroit area contained an automated messaging system that "did not provide any details as to the number of tornadoes, their position [or] their expected path," Fritts wrote. The messages also did not provide "any updates as to the location and status of the thunderstorms."

Fritts said the warning signals were not up to the standard of the FCC mandated-Emergency Alert System. He added that cable's automated messaging systems let down broadcast and cable viewers.

"By omitting critical details from their automated emergency-messaging system, cable companies deprived cable-television households of the potentially life-saving information that local broadcasters were providing to the community," Fritts said in the letter.

The National Cable Television Association, which called the Detroit system failures a "glitch," said there was no reason to change FCC policy.

The only problem with cable's safety warnings, NCTA spokes-man David Beckwith said, is that subscribers find them intrusive. Cable systems are permitted to transmit safety warnings because many areas do not receive the messages via broadcast, he added.

Where applicable, Beckwith said, most cable operators are willing to let stations announce their own safety warnings, provided that broadcasters pick up the $10,000 to $15,000 cost per cable facility.

The NAB would like to see cable pick up that bill. But Beckwith doubted the likelihood of that possibility. "The rules don't specify who is supposed to pay for it," he said.

Fritts also sent a copy of his letter to FCC chairman William Kennard.

States News Service

September