Washington—Federal Communications Commission member Robert McDowell is urging TV station owners, cable operators and satellite TV providers to reach a private agreement that guarantees carriage of local TV signals during next February's digital TV transition.
"I would prefer for the private sector to try to reach an accommodation in that regard, if possible," McDowell said on the C-SPAN program The Communicators.
All full power TV stations have to turn off their analog signals on Feb. 17, 2009 and rely exclusively on digital signals. Some are concerned that a breakdown in carriage talks that overlaps with the transition could unnecessarily confuse consumers preparing for the event.
The National Association of Broadcasters is opposed to an FCC-imposed "quiet period" that would ban TV stations from pulling their stations after Dec. 31, 2008. Broadcasters are worried about losing negotiating leverage to cable and satellite TV companies if the quiet period begins before the Feb. 1, 2009 NFL Super Bowl and major college championship football games in January.
"A lot of these retransmission consent deadlines expire Dec. 31," McDowell noted.
FCC chairman Kevin Martin has proposed two quiet periods, either Dec. 15, 2008 to Feb. 28, 2009 or Jan. 15, 2009 to Feb. 28, 2009. The cable industry favors Dec. 31, 2008 to May 31, 2009.
NAB has proposed its own voluntary "quiet period" from Feb. 4, 2009 to March 4, 2009 during which TV stations promise not to pull their signals. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association and Dish Network have rejected that idea because thousands of carriage contracts are set to expire on Dec. 31, as McDowell noted.
Air times for the McDowell interview are: Saturday, Sept.13 on C-SPAN at 6:30 p.m. ET and Monday, Sept 15 on C-SPAN 2 at 8 am ET and 8 p.m. ET.
McDowell's interview, taped Sept. 9 in Washington D.C., was made available to the media on Sept. 12.
In other comments, McDowell said he expects Comcast to win its broadband network management court case against the FCC. The suit involves the agency's Aug. 1 decision that Comcast had mismanaged its network relative to peer-to-peer file sharing applications, in violation of the agency's August 2005 network neutrality principles.
"The FCC did not have rules to enforce on this matter that was brought before us," he said. "We put the cart before the horse. I think it's better to generate rules and enforce them rather than to create rules through enforcement."
McDowell also voiced his opposition to forcing the cable industry to the break up its programming packages and sell channels on an a la carte basis.
"...Because I think it is a market-driven a la carte world, I don't see the need for a government mandate," he said.
Martin, an a la carte advocate, has claimed cable a la carte would produce lower monthly cable bills, but McDowell said that studies ''show that it would not lower prices for consumers, it would actually raise prices. It would not increase their choice of channels, it would actually decrease because a lot of niche channels would go out of business."
McDowell also dismissed Martin's repeated claim that cable forces people to buy programming.
"I don't know anyone who is forced to buy cable TV," McDowell said.
Martin, a Republican like McDowell, has engaged in aggressive oversight of the cable industry since becoming chairman in March 2005. That clash has led to 11 federal law suits either initiated or joined by NCTA, cable operators, or programmers.
Asked if he was pleased with that result, McDowell said, "No, I'm not. I've dissented from many of those proceedings."