Comcast Fighting Must-Carry For Class A

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Washington -- Comcast Corp., 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 digital TV transition 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's 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.

Comcast also pointed out that with about 133 days before the DTV transition, the FCC has important business to finish, such as ensuring that all stations were up and running on Feb. 17 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.

Martin has said that carriage of Class A stations would promote diverse programming 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.

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 a multicultural and religious (low-power TV) stations."