Washington -- The Federal Communications Commission, under Republican chairman Kevin Martin, should reconsider the decision that banned TV stations from demanding cable carriage of multiple digital-TV-programming services, FCC Democrat Michael Copps said Monday.
“I would like to revisit that,” Copps said. “I have always thought that a properly fashioned regime of must-carry would redound very much to the interest of localism and diversity and competition.”
In February, the FCC voted 4-1 to kill so-called multicast must-carry for the second time in four years. Copps voted with the majority. The lone dissenting vote was cast by Martin.
Any support from Copps to impose multicast must-carry would have to be linked to new FCC rules related to the public-interest requirements of digital-TV stations, Copps said.
He wasn’t specific about the rules he would favor, but new requirements might include free airtime for candidates for federal office, additional hours of educational programming for children and programming specifically geared toward the local audience in lieu of nationally produced syndicated programming.
“We have got to revisit this public-interest-obligations thing. It’s the central thing to me about the digital-TV transition,” Copps said at a luncheon here held by the Federal Communications Bar Association.
Former FCC chairman Michael Powell, who resigned March 17, resisted accretions in public-interest obligations. Instead, he emphasized the rollout of digital TV by broadcasters and the speedy recovery of analog spectrum for reallocation to public-safety groups free-of-charge and to wireless-broadband providers in an auction expected to reap billions of dollars for the U.S. Treasury.
“I think chairman Powell did a grand job on a lot of the mechanics of it, and I applaud that. But we are not ready to go forward until we really get this [public-interest] issue out on the table and get the best thinking of industry and other groups in this country,” Copps said.
The question about multicast must-carry was put to Copps by Bruce Collins, C-SPAN’s corporate vice president and general counsel.
Copps quipped, “I think that’s a wonderful question to ask chairman Martin.”
Martin attended Copps’ speech. On his way out the door, Martin declined to entertain press questions. “I don’t have any comments,” Martin said. “This is commissioner Copps’ speech. I just wanted to come get a chance to see it.”
FCC Democrat Jonathan Adelstein, who was also in the audience, wasn’t in a talking mood, either. “I don’t want to comment. [Copps] said it perfectly,” Adelstein said.
It’s hard to predict how a new multicast must-carry vote would turn out. A Martin-Copps-Adelstein alliance would be sufficient for broadcasters to prevail. But President Bush still needs to fill Powell’s vacant GOP seat and nominate someone to replace Republican FCC member Kathleen Abernathy, who is expected to leave the agency soon.
The multicast must-carry debate is also alive on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are considering legislation to terminate the digital-TV transition Dec. 31, 2006.
Although House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) is opposed to expanding must-carry beyond current law, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has voiced support for cable carriage of digital-TV-programming streams with public-service content, such as news and weather channels.
On constitutional, statutory and public-policy grounds, the cable industry is opposed to any attempt by Congress or the FCC to impose multicast must-carry. Broadcasters have said that expanded must-carry rights are vital to their future as competitors on channel lineups with hundreds of programming options.
In the February ruling, the FCC held that the statutory requirement that cable operators carry each TV station’s “primary video,” though “susceptible to different interpretations,” was best understood to mean, based on the current record, that cable “need not carry more than one programming stream.”
In his comments, Copps indicated that the FCC’s discussion of the issue left the door open for the imposition of multicast must-carry.
“The item that went out was premised on the current record with full acknowledgement that there were ambiguities in the law,” Copps said. “I think that certainly opens up the idea or the opportunity for us to consider this.”
Copps signaled that if he could get public-interest obligations nailed down, he would be willing to support Martin’s view that consumers would benefit from multicast must-carry. He also said broadcasters would have to participate in a policy that tied multicast must-carry to new public-interest obligations.
“Frankly, I’ve been disappointed that we haven’t had a much better dialogue than we had, and I’m hoping that in the months ahead, maybe the opportunity will open up where we can have a fuller and more productive dialogue,” Copps said.