Powell has the votes to defeat multicast must-carry

Although speculation abounds, outgoing FCC Chairman Michael Powell appears likely to reject forcing cable operators to carry more than one DTV channel from OTA broadcasters
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It’s official. The FCC will vote Thursday, Feb. 10, on the multicast must-carry issue for commercial broadcasters. Media reports said that FCC Chairman Michael Powell has at least the one vote majority needed to deny commercial broadcasters their wish that cable operators be required to carry all digital signals they choose to broadcast in their local market.

Broadcasters and a host of other group - ranging from union organizers to corn growers -are continuing to lobby hard against the vote. Though there were about a dozen lawmakers on Capital Hill calling for a delay on the vote, by week’s end there were no indications that the FCC might delay it.

Belo, among the major broadcast groups advocating multicast must-carry, has asked the FCC to delay the vote. Robert W. Decherd, Belo’s chairman, president and CEO, wants to put the issue in the hands of a new FCC chairman after Powell leaves office in March. He also has asked the chairmen of the House and Senate Commerce Committees and other members of Congress to push for a delay.

“To date, the FCC has ruled that only the primary stream of programming must be carried, which is the exact same carriage requirement that cable and satellite have today,” Decherd said in a statement. “This approach has significant negative ramifications for consumers, broadcasters and the government.

“Broadcasters,” he continued, “will be severely disadvantaged in our ability to reach the communities we serve; an uneven playing field will be created between broadcasters and competitors in the cable and satellite industries, putting at risk the continued viability of local broadcasting; the DTV transition will be slowed because we need to offer consumers more than pretty pictures to help drive set sales; and consumers will be deprived of the benefits of digital television technology.”

Broadcast industry lobbyists told Crain Communications that it appears Powell has lined up the three-vote majority needed to defeat must-carry, with Republican commissioner Kathleen Abernathy and Democratic commissioner Jonathan Adelstein tipping the balance in his favor. Other reports said additional commissioners are lining up against the broadcasters.

FCC sources said that Abernathy has made no secret of her concern that the NAB’s multicast carriage proposal raises serious constitutional problems. Sources said Adelstein signaled his opposition to the NAB plan last week, largely on grounds that broadcasters had fought the concept of paying for multicast carriage by accepting new public-interest obligations.

Even if the broadcasters lose on the must-carry issue this week, they can come back after Powell leaves the commission in March and try to reverse the vote with an FCC constituted with new members. Others think the broadcasters might take the issue to court.

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