Martin Pushes For Network-Access Rules

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Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin is pushing for adoption of rules intended to help independent programmers gain access to cable systems.

Martin — who wants the rules adopted at the agency’s Dec. 18 meeting — is concerned that new networks can’t break into the business because cable operators favor channels in which they hold ownership interests.

“They are having difficulty getting carriage and they are being squeezed out by other programming that’s affiliated with the [cable] operators,” Martin told reporters last Wednesday.

It was unclear last week whether Martin has the two additional votes needed to enact the regulations.

“We haven’t gotten feedback from the other commissioners that said they would end up being supportive of this,” Martin said. An aide to another FCC member agreed that Martin lacked the necessary support.

Not for the first time, Martin finds himself in a policy battle with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the industry’s largest trade group.

NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz said that under Martin’s proposed rules, programmers could use the FCC’s carriage-complaint process to obtain easy access to cable, regardless of the quality of their content. That regime, he added, would lead to higher monthly cable bills.

“The [proposed FCC] order is another example of the chairman’s doublespeak on the subject of cable prices, because the order will effectively obligate cable operators to carry every programming service that demands carriage, which will result in large programming packages that are more expensive,” Dietz said. “The chairman is seemingly oblivious to the fact that forcing more channels into existing programming packages will result in higher prices.”

Martin wants to address the cable rates by getting the FCC to launch a rulemaking on Dec. 18 that would ban cable programmers and TV stations that elect retransmission consent from demanding carriage on the expanded-basic tier that most subscribers purchase. (See story on page 2).

Martin is forcing the other commissioners to vote on the program carriage and channel placement issues at the same time. Adoption of new program carriage rules, however, would not apply to pending complaints filed by NFL Network against Comcast; WealthTV against Time Warner Cable, Bright House Networks, Cox Communications, and Comcast; and Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) against Comcast. All of those are pending before an FCC administrative law judge.

Specifically, Martin wants the FCC to wrap up consideration of a program carriage complaint within six months. His rules would also clarify how a cable channel could demonstrate discrimination by a cable operator. Cable operators that don’t own cable channels could be the focus of complaints for non-carriage. Lastly, cable channels couldn’t be dropped while their program carriage complaints were pending.

“We applaud chairman Martin for advancing a set of modest but critical reform proposals that would help improve the diversity of ownership in cable programming. This is an issue of basic fairness: Cable companies have been leveraging their enormous market power to shut out independent content,” said Shawn Chang, deputy policy director of Free Press, a group opposed to media consolidation.

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