Policy

B’casters Ready to Storm the Hill

1/28/2005 8:35 AM Eastern

If broadcasters lose a big regulatory battle with cable at the Federal Communications Commission next month, at least one TV-station company is vowing to fight on Capitol Hill.

On Feb. 10, the FCC is planning to vote on a proposal that would ban TV stations from demanding cable carriage of more than one digital-TV programming service. FCC sources claimed that chairman Michael Powell has the votes to kill so-called multicast must-carry.

But Capitol Broadcasting Co. Inc. in Raleigh, N.C., has no plans to take defeat at the FCC as the last word.

“The impact of a ‘no-multicasting’ must-carry decision is so great that the battle doesn’t end -- the battleground just changes to Capitol Hill,” Capitol special-projects counsel Dianne Smith said in a Jan. 27 letter to the FCC.

Interestingly, Smith did not reveal whether Capitol would try to overturn the FCC’s decision in federal court, where broadcasters were successful last decade in protecting the law that required mandatory cable carriage of analog-TV stations.

On Wednesday, Belo Corp., a Dallas-based TV-station group, sent letters to two congressional-committee chairmen asking that they urge the FCC to postpone the Feb. 10 vote.

In the letter, Belo chairman Robert Decherd said it was “ill-advised” for the FCC to vote on such an important matter just a few weeks before Powell is scheduled to leave the agency.

“Everyone acknowledges the need to reach closure on this issue, but chairman Powell’s approach is the wrong way to do it,” Decherd said.

Both Capitol and Belo argued that multicasting is an ideal way for local TV stations to expand local-programming options. But those new services are not viable financially unless cable operators are forced to carry them.

Capitol’s Raleigh CBS affiliate, WRAL, provides HDTV programming and a separate digital news channel. Time Warner Cable carries both services in the market.

“The question is: In a world where 85% of our viewers are multichannel subscribers, could we afford to program the WRAL NewsChannel without cable carriage? The answer is no,” Smith told the FCC.

Smith said that without multicast must-carry, small, independent TV stations could not negotiate cable carriage of multiple services, but stations owned by ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox had to market clout to do so.

Whether the independently owned affiliates of the “Big Four” could bargain for multiple carriage “is a toss-up,” Smith said.

She argued that the independent affiliates would likely have to partner with the Big Four networks to force carriage concessions from cable, but such a result was undesirable “because one thing all affiliates fear is ceding more power to the networks to control our programming.”

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