Public TV Splits the Sheets on Must-Carry

A triad of the nation's largest public broadcast groups is lobbying hard for all-encompassing must-carry by way of differentiating their sector from the commercial side.

In a letter filed with the FCC on Monday, the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS), PBS, and the Corp. for Public Broadcasting argued that non-commercial broadcasters are uniquely entitled to must-carry, in part because they can't negotiate for retransmission consent:

"Public television stations operate at a fundamental -- and unique -- disadvantage as compared to commercial stations in that, unlike commercial stations, public television stations lack retransmission consent rights and therefore cannot deny cable operators the right to carry their broadcast signals."

The group called for mandatory cable carriage of all free, over-the-air digital signals, while emphasizing that "the unique statutory, factual, economic and historical circumstances of public television stations" supports its "PTV Now" position. (Presumably "Public TV Now," although the slogan was never explained.)

Government protections guarantee Americans access to all public TV programming, APTS President and CEO John Lawson posited.

"The overarching key difference is that public broadcasting in the United States is uniquely governed by the Public Broadcasting Act and a series of amendments enacted over a period of more than 30 years," Lawson said in a statement. "This statutory framework makes it clear that it is in the public interest for the federal government to ensure that all citizens have access to public television services by all technological means."

Last month, APTS started shopping around the idea of embracing a "hard date" for the early return of analog spectrum. Such a strategy would take the pressure of making that decision off of the FCC and Capitol Hill, but, Lawson reminded lawmakers, it wouldn't fly without some guarantee of universal carriage.

That same day, the president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Robert Sachs, and two of his deputies paid a visit to Commissioner Michael Copps and his senior legal advisor Jordan Goldstein, to discuss must-carry. The NCTA is holding fast to its position that the phrase "primary video" in the 2001 must-carry ruling means a single channel. Must-carry for all digital signals gives broadcasters a decided competitive advantage over regular cable networks, which have to pay monthly, per-subscriber fees for carriage.