Broadcasters' dream of multichannel must-carry evaporates

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin pulled the controversial must-carry vote from the agenda ahead of the commission's mid-week meeting. It wasn't long before the behind-the-scenes story of what happened began to leak from FCC staffers.

The new Republican FCC commissioner, Robert McDowell, a member for less than three weeks, apparently surprised Martin by refusing to join his expected majority, giving the chairman a significant political defeat on a high-profile issue.

Sources close to McDowell, who refused to speak with reporters, said he sees much benefit from the cable industry voluntarily agreeing to carry broadcasters' multicasts and prefers a private sector solution, the National Journal's Technology Daily reported. These sources also said McDowell was unsure of the legality of a regulatory mandate favored by Martin on this issue.

Martin, who has spent months in political limbo at the commission, needed a Republican majority in order to push through tough issues like multichannel must-carry. At the recent NAB show in Las Vegas, the chairman told broadcasters that he would pursue the issue again when he had the votes.

That moment came last week. Martin thought McDowell, who joined the commission on June 1, would — with a 3-2 Republican majority — put him over the top. Confident of victory, Martin scheduled the item for a vote last Wednesday, gambling that McDowell would take his side.

Sources close to the two Democrats on the FCC, Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, told the Journal that Martin did not approach them to seek support on the must-carry issue.

A vote in favor of mandatory cable carriage of all digital broadcast signals would have reversed two prior FCC decisions, including one decided 4-1 in the cable industry's favor in February 2005. The one dissenter in that decision was Martin, who, while a member of the commission at the time, was not yet chairman.

Though a disappointment for broadcasters, the cable industry was relieved to win another must-carry battle.