Washington-AT&T Corp. returned fire at broadcaster Paxson Communications Corp. in their dispute over carriage of Paxson's Chicago digital-TV station, a matter now before the FCC.
Last month, Paxson became the first TV station in the country to file an Federal Communications Commission complaint demanding that cable systems carry the DTV signal of WCPX-TV. Facing a 120-day deadline, the agency is expected to rule in early January.
As one of several Paxson cable targets in the Chicago market, AT&T filed a 32-page response Oct. 2, laying out a host of legal and policy rationales for rejection of the broadcaster's request. At one point, AT&T called Paxson's demands "truly breathtaking."
Paxson's digital must-carry demand has two parts: One calls for carriage of the primary digital signal in analog, replacing the analog signal already carried by AT&T. This approach allows WCPX to continue to serve off-air viewers with analog and digital signals without losing any cable viewers.
The second part relates to Paxson's use of the digital spectrum. Instead of offering high-definition television, the broadcaster has split its Chicago digital signal six ways. It wants AT&T to carry five of the channels on its digital platform, where available.
In reply, AT&T said Paxson has no right to seek cable carriage-in analog or digital format-until the broadcaster surrenders its analog license to the FCC.
AT&T also said Paxson's complaint was premature because the FCC had not completed the digital must-carry rulemaking it launched in 1998.
"Paxson's complaint raises the very same issues in [the rulemaking], but either completely ignores the rulemaking or erroneously assumes that the issues already have been resolved in Paxson's favor," AT&T said.
In its complaint, Paxson insisted it did not have to await FCC action because it has an automatic statutory right to cable carriage for its digital signals.
Lastly, AT&T said if the FCC granted Paxson's complaint, the agency would impose burdens that violate AT & T's First Amendment protections.
Claiming the Supreme Court upheld analog must-carry only because it was necessary to preserve free, over-the-air-broadcasting, AT&T said digital must-carry would require the company to drop cable networks on channel-locked systems in favor of Paxson digital signals that hardly any off-air viewers can watch.
In the past, FCC chairman William Kennard has said he's in no rush to complete the digital must-carry rulemaking. He said he needs to know more about broadcasters' business plans for the digital spectrum.
Broadcasters have complained that the FCC's unwillingness to adopt digital carriage rules has injected uncertainty into their transition plans.
Under FCC rules, all commercial-TV stations must be broadcasting digitally by May, 2002.