Dealing TV stations their worst policy defeat in dog years, the Federal Communications Commission was poised Thursday to tell broadcasters that they are barking up the wrong tree if they think cable needs to carry their multiple digital-TV services.
In doing so, the FCC is clearing a controversy from its calendar, but not from the broader political agenda. Broadcasters have vowed to fight in the courts and to turn to Congress if new telecommunications legislation builds momentum later this year.
TV stations are guaranteed -- both now and after the digital-TV transition -- cable carriage of a single programming service. Because broadcasters can now use their digital bandwidth to transmit five or six channels when not beaming an HDTV picture, they urged the FCC to require cable carriage of all of them if they are also provided free-of-charge to over-the-air viewers.
But Republican FCC chairman Michael Powell, who is leaving next month, has assembled a bipartisan majority that includes Republican Kathleen Abernathy and Democrat Jonathan Adelstein to reaffirm policy set in January 2001 that the law requires cable carriage of one programming service -- the “primary video” -- and nothing else.
Powell, who needs three votes to win, might get a fourth vote, an FCC source said Wednesday.
The last time the National Association of Broadcasters lost big at the FCC was nearly a decade ago, when then-chairman Reed Hundt forced stations to air three hours per week of children’s educational programming.
Former FCC chairman William Kennard tried to launch a low-power FM-radio service, but the NAB prevailed on Congress to scale back the scope of the original plan.
The vast majority of eligible TV stations -- about 80% -- negotiate cable carriage rather than electing must-carry. Cable systems are voluntarily carrying more than 500 digital-TV stations, or about 37% of all commercial stations.
But the NAB doesn’t view all of that as a healthy trend. In a Jan. 31 letter to Congress, NAB president Edward Fritts said that without mandatory cable carriage, “digital multicasting will be suffocated in its cradle.”