The cable industry’s campaign to stop TV stations from pulling their signals as the nation converts to digital broadcasting is stalled at the Federal Communications Commission mainly because of chairman Kevin Martin’s opposition.
For months, cable has sought a “quiet period” that would begin no later than Dec. 31, a deadline which would prevent many TV stations from withholding their signals in the weeks leading up to their Feb. 17, 2009, analog-to-digital transition mandated by federal law.
But Martin said last Monday that he would support a quiet period that began only in late January, which in theory would allow disputes that began in late 2008 to rage up to and beyond Feb. 17.
“I think [the quiet period] is important as you approach the DTV transition, but I don’t think we should be using the DTV transition as an excuse to be interfering with the normal contractual negotiations that are occurring,” Martin told reporters Monday. (See Rules, page 37.)
Martin took a few questions from reporters attending an event at the Newseum to start the 100-day countdown to Feb. 17.
The cable industry wants the quiet period to start before thousands of retransmission- consent contracts expire on Dec. 31. Every three years, TV stations have the right to demand compensation or free carriage from cable systems.
“To minimize this risk, it’s essential that the [FCC] establish a quiet period that begins before December 31, the date most broadcast-carriage agreements expire,” said American Cable Association president Matt Polka, who represents small and independent cable operators.
Martin said his late-January date would “make sure that we stabilize … the number of channels … available [on Feb. 17].”
Martin circulated his plan but didn’t have enough support to pass it.
The other four FCC commissioners have voted to seek public comment on a variety of quiet period dates. Public comment can’t begin until Martin casts his vote.
“The other commissioners want to put out a further notice of proposed rulemaking first. I think we will be putting out a notice and we’ll consider what to do then,” Martin said.
The National Association of Broadcasters has endorsed a one-month voluntary quiet period that wouldn’t begin until Feb. 4, 2009, a proposal rejected by the head of cable’s largest trade association.
NAB president David Rehr has said that the FCC lacks the legal authority to impose any quiet period.
“Many retransmission-consent agreements expire at the end of 2008; the NAB’s proposal to commence a quiet period only in early February 2009 therefore is nothing more than a hollow gesture,” National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow said in a statement last month.