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FCC’s Martin signals support for multichannel must-carry

When the issue of multichannel must-carry was before the FCC last February, Kevin Martin was the only one of five commissioners to dissent when the agency — then chaired by Michael Powell — denied the requirement.

Now, Martin is FCC chairman and he is taking cautious steps to support multichannel must-carry for broadcasters, the National Journal reported last week.

In recent weeks, the FCC has issued two reports favoring broadcasters in their disputes with the cable and satellite industries over the issue.

The first of the two FCC reports was issued Aug. 23 — when the commission said satellite companies, DirecTV and EchoStar Communications, must carry all of the multicast digital channels that broadcasters transmit in Alaska and Hawaii. The agency also ruled that the satellite companies must carry their high-definition programs.

That decision applied narrowly to Alaska and Hawaii because of special language in last year’s Satellite Home Viewer Extension and Reauthorization Act (SHVERA). That law requires the two main satellite companies to retransmit all local broadcast signals to almost all subscribers in Alaska and Hawaii within a year. They also must carry local digital signals in those states by June 8, 2007.

Because of capacity limitations on satellite systems, Congress generally has not imposed the same must-carry requirements on satellites as it has on cable. And yet, under SHVERA, the FCC said, “requiring carriage of multicast and high-definition signals most accurately reflects the requirements set forth in the law.”

In the second SHVERA report, issued Sept. 8, the FCC was required to consider the impact of retransmission consent rules on video competition. Retransmission consent is what cable operators must pay to carry the signals of broadcasters who opt out of the must-carry requirement. Stations owned by major networks generally seek retransmission consent. Less popular stations opt for must-carry rules.

Small cable companies chafe against what they regard as excessive broadcaster demands for compensation. Their patience is likely to be tested soon. Oct. 1 marked the beginning of a three-month round of negotiations between broadcasters and cable operators over compensation rates.

Regarding this matter, the FCC said: “If broadcasters are limited in their ability to accept in-kind compensation, they should be granted full carriage rights for their digital broadcast signals, including all free over-the-air digital multicast streams.”

Despite the reports, the Journal said Martin could do little to affect the issue at the FCC, as the question of multicast carriage has become one of the hardest-fought, behind-the-scenes battles in the digital transition debate on Capitol Hill.

Broadcasters have been pushing for the requirement in exchange for accepting a hard date for returning their analog spectrum. Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens, (R-AK) has been silent on the must-carry issue.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has so far rejected broadcaster demands on the issue. A multicast must-carry requirement “is not going to be part of the base DTV bill, and the prospects for adding it as an amendment in the House are probably pretty dim,” Rep. Fred Upton, (R-MI), chairman of the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, said late last month.

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