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Digital must-carry: Can't we just get along?

Several TV industry bigwigs got together recently in New York City to see if they can just “get along” with some form of digital must-carry.

The secret “backroom” confab, apparently instigated by FCC chairman Michael Powell, is an attempt to get the TV industry to come up with an agreement on digital must-carry, freeing a divided FCC from having to take the heat from a very big political hot potato.

Must-carry proposals —none public— have been making the rounds at the FCC for weeks, but the commissioners are said to be split on a resolution. Some say Chairman Powell and Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy support the cable industry definition of primary video as a single program feed. But Commissioners Copps and Martin are said to lean toward forcing pay TV operators to carry a package of programs from each station via multicasting. Jonathan Adelstein, the new commissioner who can break the deadlock, has not yet had a chance to deal with the hot button issue.

Regardless of how the FCC rules, sources say the issue could be tied up for years in the courts and, as with the analog must-carry issue, it may end up at the Supreme Court. A long court battle could be avoided if the industry itself could decide the issue from within.

Cable and satellite operators have long resisted being forced to expand their systems for what they consider redundant and second-rate programming offered by many over-the-air stations. “On how many channels do I have to offer the same feed of the Home Shopping Network?” asked Echostar Chairman Charlie Ergen at a media conference.

Reports said the first meeting took place on December 12. Attendees are said to have included: Glenn Britt, CEO of Time Warner Cable; James Robbins, CEO of Cox Communications; Steve Burke, president of Comcast Cable; Michael Willner, CEO of Insight Communications and chairman of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association; and Robert Sachs, president of the NCTA. Broadcaster representatives included: Andy Fisher, president of Cox Television; Walter Liss, president of the ABC Stations Group; Jack Sander, president of Belo TV Group; Dave Barrett, CEO of Hearst Argyle Broadcasting; Eddie Fritts, president of the NAB; Patrick Mullen, president of Tribune Television; and David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service TV.

Apparently, the meetings had no representatives of the public, those who own the broadcast spectrum and who will most certainly pay increased pay television bills to expand bandwidth if multichannel must-carry is mandated. With no media coverage allowed, no credible details of the meeting were revealed.

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