FCC must-carry decision may come by Christmas

A showdown at the FCC on one of the most important issues facing terrestrial broadcasters is expected to come by Christmas. At stake is whether cable operators are required to carry more than one program channel from a local television station.

The general consensus within the industry is that no additional must-carry requirement can or will be mandated. Cable companies are expected to end up carrying a single program feed per broadcaster.

However, even if the FCC does vote to require cable companies to distribute all the channels that a broadcaster might multicast, few believe it could survive a challenge in court. The current analog must-carry policy squeaked by the Supreme Court in 1997 by only a single vote majority.

Under current FCC policy, cable operators must-carry only a single program feed from each TV station. Broadcasters, however, want a rule that will require the carriage of all of their channels, which could be as high as six feeds per station using DTV’s multicast technology. The NAB claims this is necessary because the over-the-air audience is no longer large enough to sustain an ad-supported multicast business model.

Others think any must-carry decision should be delayed until terrestrial broadcasters have finalized two other issues: First, a full transition to digital broadcasting and return of all analog spectrum; and second, a detailed plan on how the broadcasters will fulfill public service obligations incurred with the acceptance of digital spectrum.

Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), and Decker Anstrom, president and COO of Landmark Communications, have asked the FCC not to address new must-carry requirements until stations return their analog spectrum.

After a meeting in November with FCC commissioner Kathleen Abernathy, the NCTA sent a letter to the commission arguing that a ruling requiring cable to carry multiple broadcaster feeds “would not only interfere with the ability of cable operators to provide the array of services that best meets the needs and demands of consumers but would also raise serious constitutional problems.”

Others are raising a question to broadcasters: What have you done for us lately? Not since the days of the Gore Commission during the Clinton Administration has the issue of DTV broadcaster public service been publicly addressed. Michael Copps, an FCC commissioner who led the opposition to the agency’s controversial media ownership rules, wants the FCC to address DTV public service obligations at the same time as any must-carry ruling. He advocates that broadcasters be obligated to additional public service requirements if cable operators are required to carry additional channels.

“This is the most important part of the transition and this commission needs to address it, and we are not doing an adequate job of addressing it,” Copps said at a press conference recently.

Copps has the support of consumer organizations who have been critical of the FCC for what they claim are“corporate giveaways” that broadcasters' failure to recognize their obligations to the public.

For more information visit www.fcc.gov.

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