Comcast, Time Warner Fight Must-Carry

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Cable’s leading operators are voicing concern about a plan supported by Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin that would allow TV stations to demand mandatory carriage for either their analog or digital signals.

Last week, representatives from Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable met with top FCC staff, including Martin’s media adviser, to spell out their differences with Martin’s plan.

The MSOs are concerned that the plan -- which Martin wants to pass at the agency’s July 14 public meeting -- would lead to back-door dual must-carry for an unknown period of years. The FCC has twice formally rejected dual must-carry in the past four years.

Current rules permit must-carry for the analog signals, while digital carriage is negotiated until the analog signal is returned to the FCC.

Martin’s plan would allow stations to opt for digital must-carry and negotiated analog carriage. Cable sources have said that because they have so many analog-only customers, carriage of TV stations in analog and digital would become a certain reality except for truly weak stations with puny ratings. TV stations that opted for digital must-carry would not forfeit the right to negotiate analog carriage.

In a July 1 letter filed with the FCC, Comcast said permitting digital must-carry prior to return of the analog spectrum would conflict with federal law and prior FCC rulings. The MSO added that the policy would likely diminish broadcaster interest in the speedy return of the analog spectrum.

In a separate letter, Time Warner said Martin's so-called either/or must-carry approach clashed with the agency’s votes in 2001 and 2005 that dual must-carry would violate cable’s First Amendment rights.

FCC sources said Martin’s plan would not involve government-imposed dual must-carry, adding that carriage of a TV station’s analog and digital signals would be a discretionary act by cable companies.

Comcast and Time Warner are taking issue with a major Martin proposal at the same time that the two companies are asking Martin to approve their $17.6 billion acquisition of Adelphia Communications Corp.

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