Powell set to leave FCC in a blaze of controversy

FCC Chairman Michael Powell does not want to give broadcasters multichannel must-carry on cable systems
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For all one can say about outgoing FCC Chairman Michael Powell, he certainly hasn’t shied away from controversy. Before he leaves the FCC in March, news reports say that Powell will confront two hot potato issues affecting terrestrial broadcasting.

One is multichannel digital must-carry. In recent months Powell has repeatedly voiced doubts about the legality of requiring cable operators to carry multiple channels from local broadcasters. Now, Reuters reports that Powell has proposed rejecting the concept of multichannel must-carry in a formal vote of the FCC. That vote has reportedly been set for Feb. 10, before Powell exits the FCC.

Another contentious issue is a hard deadline for the turn off of analog television signals and the return of that spectrum to the federal government. There are reports that such a deadline plan may emerge before the commission meeting in March, a bit of a last hurrah for the Powell chairmanship.

Under current regulations, a television station’s primary signal may be carried on cable, but there is no requirement that cable operators must accept all channels a broadcaster might choose to transmit over its assigned digital spectrum. Many broadcasters have been demanding full multichannel must-carry in order to enhance the value of their stations.

The current policy dates back to 2001, when the FCC ruled that cable operators had to carry only the broadcaster’s primary digital signal. Reuters reported that Powell has circulated a proposal that would uphold the 2001 decision.

The report emphasized that Powell could modify or withdraw the proposal at any time and must convince two of the four other FCC commissioners to support the item. Powell voted in 2001 against requiring carriage of more than one digital broadcast channel.

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