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Big cable's decade-old effort to torpedo the program-access rules likely comes to an end next month when the Federal Communications Commission is expected to extend the rules perhaps for another four years.

According to agency and industry sources, the FCC is expected to vote at its June 13 meeting to extend the rules at least until 2006. That date coincides with the sunset of a law that bans TV stations from signing exclusive retransmission consent deals with cable operators or direct-broadcast satellite carriers.

Under the program-access rules, cable operators are required to sell their satellite-delivered programming to multichannel video competitors, such as satellite giants EchoStar Communications Corp. and DirecTV Inc.

The rules were the brainchild of Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and flowed from program-sharing mandates that Tauzin fought to insert in the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992.

Tauzin claims the program-access law and associated rules were instrumental in the creation and rapid growth of the DBS industry, which now boasts 18 million subscribers, or about 20 percent of the U.S. pay TV market.

EchoStar and DirecTV were vocal proponents for extension, claiming they could lose access to 45 cable-affiliated networks, including such marquee brands as CNN, Discovery and Home Box Office.

The cable industry argued back that EchoStar and DirecTV have grown so big, so quickly that programmers would not easily give up access to 18 million DBS subscribers in exchange for cable exclusivity.

"The rules become less and less important as [DBS] gets bigger and stronger. My guess is that in a couple of years this becomes a hot issue," said The Carmel Group satellite and cable analyst Jimmy Schaeffler.

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