TV stations should not receive expanded cable-carriage rights for their digital signals unless the federal government requires them to expand coverage of local civic-affairs and election news, according to a nonpartisan election-watchdog group.
“Our concern is that they get [multicast] must-carry rights without doing anything more,” Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, said Thursday.
Kevin Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is backing a plan that would allow a digital-TV station to demand cable carriage of multiple programming services. The FCC could vote to approve it June 15.
Current FCC rules require cable carriage of a single programming service if the TV station demands mandatory carriage. Multicasting-carriage rights would probably kick in after a TV station had stopped analog broadcasting and relied solely on digital transmission. The official analog cutoff is Feb. 17, 2009.
With digital technology, TV stations can use their bandwidth to provide one or two HD channels or five or six programming channels in standard-definition. Analog technology limited stations to one service.
The cable industry is on record opposing multicast must-carry as a violation of cable First Amendment editorial rights and Fifth Amendment rights because TV stations would be able to occupy additional cable capacity without compensation.
The CLC is urging the FCC to withhold expanding must-carry rights if the agency is unwilling at the same time to require digital-TV stations to air three hours per week of programming dedicated to local elections and community issues, such as local environmental conditions.
“It would be everything below your presidential race,” McGehee said, referring to expanded local political coverage.
In talks with Martin, McGehee said he has agreed on the need for more public-interest programming but has not endorsed hourly quotas.