Policy

NAB to Seek New Multicast Vote

4/24/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Las Vegas— Broadcasters were 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 last 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 insists that the law actually mandates carriage of any and all programming services a station can pack into its digital bandwidth. Today, that’s about five or six programming streams.

DEFERS COURT FIGHT

The NAB was expected to make the FCC filing last week in a regulatory step that would postpone 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 NAB’s going to the commission 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 commissioner who supported broadcasters, although agency Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein indicated they might have voted the other way had the agency adopted new public-interest requirements for DTV 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 with hundreds of channels on pay TV platforms.

BOON TO PROFITS?

Cable 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 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 last Tuesday, James Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Company 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.”

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