Comcast, the country's largest cable operator, is challenging a plan by Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin that could allow hundreds of TV stations to demand cable carriage for the first time.
An attempt to force cable operators to distribute so-called low-power Class-A stations would both violate the law and needlessly embroil cable operators, the stations and the FCC in a controversy unrelated to the most pressing policy matter — completion of the transition to digital TV next February, Comcast representatives said in a recent meeting with FCC officials.
“The broadcast digital transition is at a crucial phase. This is no time for diversions or missteps. More must-carry debates are unjustified and counterproductive,” Comcast said in an Oct. 2 memo prepared for aides to FCC Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein.
The FCC is expected to vote on Martin's plan at its Oct. 15 monthly public meeting here. That vote is designed to begin a rulemaking that probably would not conclude for several months, perhaps even after Martin, a Republican Bush appointee, has left the agency.
Class-A TV stations have mandatory cable-carriage rights in only limited circumstances. Martin's plan would allow 555 Class-A stations to apply for full-power status. Full-power TV stations have the legal right to demand cable carriage.
The Supreme Court upheld must-carry for full-power stations in a narrow 5-4 ruling in 1997.
“The must-carry regime already rests on a shaky legal foundation. Any further expansion would likely lead to all must-carry rules being struck down,” Comcast said in the memo.
Under FCC cable-ownership rules, Comcast has 25.1 million video subscribers, giving the company 25.7% of the pay TV market.
Comcast also pointed out that with about 132 days (as of Oct. 7) before the DTV transition, the FCC has important business to finish, such as ensuring that all stations are up and running by the Feb. 17, 2009 transition date and that millions of consumers know how to operate digital-to-analog converter boxes and are aware they might need to adjust their rooftop antennas.
“The margin of error is very thin. A timely transition could be jeopardized if any of the tasks above are not completed promptly and properly,” Comcast said.
In justifying new cable-carriage mandates, Martin has said that distribution of Class-A stations would promote program diversity on cable systems.
According to FCC data, 43% of Class-A stations are Spanish-language broadcasters. The Community Broadcasters Association, a trade group for low-power TV stations, estimates that about 6% of Class A stations are religious broadcasters.
Una Vez Mas, a Spanish-language broadcast group with low-power and Class-A TV stations in 24 markets, said in a statement backing Martin's move: “The time has come to fully recognize the contribution that Class A and LPTV stations make to their communities. These stations continue to provide important and sometimes crucial local content.”
In the FCC meetings, Comcast said it “voluntarily carries the (low-power TV) stations that it believes are demanded by its customers, including a significant number of multicultural and religious (low-power TV) stations.” The company, in a later filing, said it carries “over 100 Class A and other LPTV stations.”
Cable's largest trade group — the National Cable & Telecommunications Association — is opposed to Martin's plan. The National Association Broadcasters has not supported must carry for Class-A stations, a source of frustration for the CBA.
The American Cable Association, a trade group for small cable companies, has asked the FCC to exempt cable systems with limited channel capacity and a limited number of subscribers from Class A carriage mandates. Meanwhile, at least one group trying to diversify ownership of mass media outlets is supporting Martin.
“Class-A stations offer the best opportunity for minorities, women and small business to participate and compete in the television industry, which is increasingly consolidated with few opportunities for minority broadcasters,” said David Honig, executive director of the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council, in a letter to Martin last Monday.
In many communities, cable carriage would give Class A stations instant access to 60% of local homes, and likely increase the economic value of the stations.
“MMTC strongly encourages the commissioners to support this initiative, which would do much to enhance diversity and localism in television,” Honig said.