FCC poised to defeat commercial must-carry

The industry awaits a Feb. 10 FCC meeting that could decide broadcasters’ DTV fate
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Against a backdrop of fierce lobbying over an expected FCC decision this week on multicast must-carry for commercial broadcasters, the cable industry and 356 public television stations have reached a tentative agreement on the cable carriage of non-commercial programming.

The cable operators agreed to carry up to four digital channels of non-commercial programming offered by each public television station in a market.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) and Association of Public Television Stations (APTS) negotiated a 10-year deal that most of their members must ratify within 60 days. It would take effect within six months after ratification.

It was a major victory for the public broadcasters as predictions circulated that FCC Chairman Michael Powell had lined up at least the three votes necessary to deny multicast must-carry to commercial stations.

John Lawson, president and chief executive of APTS said public stations would seek aid from Congress to help fund additional channels.

Initially, while public stations are broadcasting both analog and digital signals in a market, cable systems would pick up to four channels of one public television station. Once all stations in a market are airing digital, then up to four channels from each local public television station could be carried. The agreement does not supersede existing agreements between cable operators and public stations.

Robert Sachs, president and chief executive of the NCTA, told Reuters that cable operators want to carry compelling digital broadcast content. He said public stations gain greater rights under the agreement when they produce more HD programming and more children’s programming.

Cable companies would have some protection from airing channels that merely duplicate programming, but Lawson said there were provisions allowing stations to offer the same programs at different times.

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