News

NAB to Ask FCC to Reconsider Multicast

4/20/2005 3:21 AM Eastern

Las Vegas -- Broadcasters are planning to ask federal regulators to reconsider a February ruling that banned TV stations from demanding cable-system carriage of multiple digital-programming services, a high-ranking industry source said here Tuesday.

The National Association of Broadcasters is seeking a new ruling from the Federal Communications Commission on a hot-button issue called multicast must-carry.

Although broadcasters are legally entitled to cable carriage of a single programming service, the NAB insisted that the law actual mandates carriage of all programming services that a station can pack into its digital bandwidth. That is currently about five or six programming streams.

The NAB is expected to make the FCC filing later this week in a regulatory step that postpones a court battle with the agency and the cable industry. In 1997, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold the 1992 must-carry law in a suit filed by Turner Broadcasting System Inc.

Paxson Communications Corp., one of the largest TV-station owners in the country, has already appealed the FCC’s February ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

But the NAB’s decision to go to the FCC in lieu of a court appeal usually means that the D.C. Circuit won’t take up Paxson’s appeal while the NAB's FCC petition is pending.

In February, the FCC voted 4-1 that cable’s requirement to carry a TV station’s primary video meant just one programming service. Kevin Martin, who became FCC chairman about five weeks after the vote, was the only FCC member who supported broadcasters, although FCC Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein indicated that they might have voted the other way had the agency adopted new public-interest requirements for digital-TV stations.

Although the vast majority of TV stations negotiate cable carriage, broadcasters told the FCC that multicast-carriage rights were essential to the industry’s ability to compete in a world of hundreds of channels on pay TV platforms.

But the cable industry countered that handing TV stations many additional slots on their systems by government fiat would, in addition to raising serious First Amendment issues, provide stations with an incentive to air infomercials and other low-value content aimed at reaping quick profits.

Cable also argued that the public interest would not be served if TV stations could claim channel space by default while cable networks -- which don’t possess FCC licenses to reach viewers -- had to scratch and claw in the free market to obtain cable carriage.

Speaking here Tuesday, James Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Co. Inc. in Raleigh, N.C., said cable's resistance to multicast must-carry was designed to block competition from TV stations that wanted to use their digital capacity to air 24-hour news and weather channels.

“I absolutely think that we need [multicast] must-carry because cable has programming that they want to protect against our local news channels," Goodmon said. “It is not a [cable] capacity issue. It is also not an issue of C-SPAN coming off all over America.”

The FCC shot down multicast must-carry the first time in 2001 and took four years to act on reconsideration requests filed by broadcasters. With the FCC's timetable for the NAB's new petition at best uncertain, broadcasters are also talking with Capitol Hill lawmakers about including multicast must-carry in a new law designed to end analog broadcasting on a firm date.

House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) -- who favors ending the digital-TV transition Dec. 31, 2006 -- told reporters here Monday that he was not sure whether his digital-TV bill would include multicast-must-carry mandates.

Barton has historically opposed must-carry requirements, while his close ally -- Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee -- has been a must-carry supporter.

September