Martin Backs Into Dual 'Must'

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Washington — In February, the Federal Communications Commission voted 5-0 to outlaw dual must-carry — mandatory cable carriage of analog and digital-TV signals.

But FCC chairman Kevin Martin is circulating a proposal that cable sources have described as de facto dual must-carry for all but the weakest U.S. commercial-TV stations.

According to industry and FCC sources, Martin would allow a TV station to elect must-carry for either the analog or digital signal and retransmission consent for the non-must-carry signal.

JULY 14 TRYOUT?

Martin hopes to adopt the proposal at the agency's July 14 public session. The new rules would take effect in time for next triennial carriage-election cycle, which begins Oct. 1.

Current FCC rules bar a TV station from electing must-carry for the digital signal until after it has surrendered its analog signal.

Cable lawyers began lobbying against the Martin proposal last week. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association declined to comment.

“To me, this would just sanction the broadcasters to use retransmission consent and must-carry to extract more revenue,” said Matt Polka, president of the small-MSO American Cable Association.

The FCC has been short a commissioner since mid-March when chairman Michael Powell resigned, leaving the agency evenly divided 2-2 between Republicans and Democrats. It was unclear whether Martin had three votes to pass his carriage proposal.

Proponents of the Martin plan suggested the FCC was not imposing a dual-carriage regime, but was instead allowing market forces to determine carriage issues. Evidently, the plan would likely last just a few years, assuming Congress voted this year to end the DTV transition on Dec. 31, 2008.

But FCC Republican Kathleen Abernathy told reporters last Thursday “some have argued that this whole debate can be framed as a dual-carriage issue.”

Cable operators agree, convinced that hundreds of TV stations have the market clout to pick must-carry for the digital signal and retransmission consent for the analog signals, hoping to use those negotiations to seek cash for carriage or secure carriage of the digital multicast services.

PAXSON PLEASED

Lowell W. Paxson, CEO of Paxson Communications Corp., one the largest TV-station owners in the U.S., called Martin's plan “a good step” but well short of multicast must-carry, which would mean cable carriage of all DTV services beamed by a local broadcaster. Although Martin favors multicast must-carry, he does not have the votes to enact it, Paxson said.

He added that FCC Democrats Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps won't endorse multicast must-carry until after the agency adopts new public-interest requirements for commercial DTV stations.

Martin's plan would also address satellite carriage of digital-TV signals, an FCC source said. EchoStar Communications Corp., for example, is concerned about carrying local DTV stations in high-definition format. The company argues that HD signals consume so much bandwidth that it might be forced to drop local-TV signals in dozens of markets.

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