Short on votes, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin last week dropped a plan designed to force cable operators to carry hundreds of low-power TV stations for the first time.
Martin wanted the agency to vote on the plan last Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn., but he decided against going forward last Tuesday afternoon after failing to obtain two votes in addition to his to ensure passage.
The FCC’s meeting was to include testimony from low-power television executives from around the country. Dozens of them needlessly traveled to Nashville, even though Martin knew as early as last Monday that his plan was doomed.
Martin scheduled the FCC meeting at approximately the same time as the FCC-sponsored forum at Vanderbilt University on pediatric obesity, a subject important to FCC member Deborah Taylor Tate, who helped organize the event. Three commissioners — Tennessee native Tate, Robert McDowell and Jonathan Adelstein — attended.
Martin refused to go, staying behind in Washington. In fact, he held a press conference while Tate’s event was in progress.
Meanwhile, the LPTV officials converged on Vanderbilt University to complain that the rug had been pulled out from under them.
McDowell issued a statement effectively pinning the blame on Martin.
“I am disappointed that representatives from the LPTV community were led to believe that their item would be on today’s agenda. As evidenced by the crowd today, they traveled from all over the country to Nashville only to find out that their item had been removed without the benefit of notification,” McDowell said in a statement.
Martin proposed that the FCC adopt a notice of proposed rulemaking, which would set the stage for passage in a few months of final rules that would give eligible Class A stations mandatory cable carriage.
The other four FCC members balked, telling Martin that all they would support was a notice of inquiry, essentially a fact-finding process that would not involve the adoption of rules. That’s the same answer Martin received when he first floated his plan in February.
“He did no consensus building between February and now to make him think he had the votes,” an FCC official said.
Martin declined to go along with the NOI, insisting it was time to move toward the adoption of rules.
“I would say … any the commissioners who are at the Nashville [forum] today who said they were ready to move forward are not being straightforward because they weren’t ready to move forward with a notice of proposed rulemaking and with the opportunity for low-power to have must carry,” Martin told reporters.
Martin’s actions last week — canceling the Nashville meeting, refusing to go to Vanderbilt and holding a press conference during Tate’s forum — didn’t sit well with this colleagues.
“While skipping out on the meeting, he has time to hold a press conference to attack those of us who bothered to go?” FCC Democrat Adelstein said.
Martin’s plan put the FCC on track to allow more than 500 low-power Class A TV stations to apply to become full-power stations.
Under current law, full-power TV stations are entitled to mandatory cable carriage; low-power stations, by contrast, have similar access rights in very limited circumstances.
The cable industry, including No. 1 cable operator Comcast, opposed Martin’s plan, saying additional TV station carriage burdens would violate the First Amendment and potentially disrupt the national conversion to digital television on Feb. 17, 2009.
Martin has said that carriage of Class A stations would promote diverse programming on cable systems. According to an FCC official, about 43% of Class A stations are Spanish-language broadcasters.