Black Caucus Head Issues Must-Carry Alarm

Author:
Publish date:

Washington -- The leader of the Congressional Black Caucus
is urging federal regulators to show restraint in deciding whether to force cable systems
to carry digital-TV signals.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said in an Aug. 17 letter to
Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard that she was concerned that
mandatory cable carriage would hurt minority-owned networks like Black Entertainment
Television.

Waters theorized that BET's fare would be the first to
be sacrificed if channel-locked cable systems are forced by the FCC to carry digital-TV
signals.

Digital must-carry, Waters said, "could have a
dramatic, negative impact on the diversity of cable-television programming," citing
potential harm to BET, BET on Jazz, and BET Movies/Starz!3.

As of early last week, Kennard had not issued a response to
Waters.

A broadcasting-industry source reacted to the Waters letter
by saying that it failed to mention that "minority broadcasters would be put at risk
if their digital signals were not carried by cable operators."

The FCC is considering a plan that would require cable
carriage of TV stations' current analog signals, in addition to their digital-TV
signals. The dual-carriage requirement is scheduled to cease after TV stations terminate
analog service. The analog-shutoff target date is 2006, but the FCC could grant waivers.

About two-dozen TV stations are set to begin offering
digital service in November. Under FCC digital-rollout rules, all commercial-TV stations
-- about 1,600 -- must be beaming digitally by May 1, 2002.

The cable industry has protested any mandatory dual
carriage of analog and digital signals, arguing that it would force operators to drop
widely distributed and viewed cable networks, which would be displaced by high-definition
television signals that could be seen initially only by people who had purchased $5,000
HDTV receivers.

Waters said it was likely that cable operators that do not
have the channel capacity to accommodate digital-TV signals would drop cable networks that
"cater to audiences in the minority community." That being the case, digital
must-carry would result in "grave consequences for minority programmers," she
added.

Robert Johnson, chairman of BET Holdings Inc., said
networks like his were the most at risk from operators.

"They will decide that they have to drop services that
they consider to be niche, because that audience is going to be the smallest universe in
that market," Johnson said.

Johnson added that BET would lose per-subscriber fees and
ad dollars.

"BET would be in danger of going out of
business," he said.

Is Kennard going to care about these arguments?

"Bill Kennard does not want to preside over the death
of BET," Johnson asserted.

Waters' letter could turn out to be a potent lobbying
asset for the cable industry. Kennard is the first African-American to head the FCC, and
among his stated priorities are advancing minority ownership of media properties and
boosting minority employment in the upper reaches of the media.

Kennard's agency is several months away from issuing
rules. Cable operators, cable networks and broadcasters are expected to file
digital-carriage recommendations with the FCC Oct. 13.

Related