Minority Groups Blast Martin

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Minority groups last week continued to hammer comments by Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin suggesting that cable industry funding purchased those groups’ opposition to the sale of cable programming on a channel-by-channel basis.

“We have the right to weigh in on these issues without being accused of being inside someone’s pocket,” said Lillian Rodriguez-Lopez, president of the Hispanic Foundation, in a conference call with reporters. “We have not been purchased by the cable industry to make this statement” against a la carte pricing of TV channels.

Opposition to a la carte was based on the belief that networks intending to serve minority viewers would have a hard time surviving outside packages with dozens of channels, said Manny Mirabal, founder and co-chair of Hispanics in Telecommunications and Technology Partnership.

“There is some sound reasoning that justifies our position having nothing to do with the cable industry,” said Mirabal, also on the call.

Two weeks ago, Martin at an Aspen Institute forum voiced his support for a la carte, something which he has done on many occasions since becoming chairman in March 2005. The unbundling of cable programming tiers would help Spanish-speaking subscribers in particular, he added, because they wouldn’t need to buy dozens of English-language networks before having the opportunity to pay extra for a package of Spanish-language networks.

Moments later, he referred to an October 2004 study by the Center for Public Integrity that documented cable’s financial support for numerous minority organizations that had spoken out against government-imposed a la carte as a threat to diversity in programming.

Martin explained that from his perspective, the CPI report showed that minority opposition to a la carte was less than genuine and probably the result of cable generosity.

“The Center identified that there were hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and other benefits showered by the cable companies on to some of those non-profits to take that position,” Martin said at the Aug. 14 event in Aspen, Colo. “So it’s a little unclear that the people that are actually concerned about the impact of a la carte haven’t also been taking that position — as described. This is not our report, this is done by the Center for Public Integrity about the change in the minority groups’ position as a result of some of the, as they describe it, I think, largesse that was provided to it.”

The CPI study was released about a month before the FCC concluded in a report to Congress that the imposition of a la carte would cause more harm than good. A year later, Martin secretly revised the study, which he said contained statistical flaws, to show that a la carte could benefit some customers.

“It’s well known that [Martin’s] support for a la carte regulation is little more than pandering to the religious wing of the far right,” said E. Faye Williams, national chair of the National Congress of Black Women.

An FCC spokesman declined to discuss the matter further.

Last Tuesday, seven minority group leaders wrote Martin demanding an apology and a retraction. They received the former but not the latter in a letter from Martin delivered just a few hours later.

“I would like to express that I have the utmost respect and appreciation for the work and views expressed by your organizations. I apologize if my recent comments led some to believe otherwise.” Martin said.

But he insisted that he would continue to stump for a la carte so that “all consumers, including minority consumers,” can buy only those channels they want to watch and nothing else.

Martin’s letter didn’t satisfy minority leaders, who said the FCC chief is still claiming he knows what’s in the best interest of minorities better than minority leaders themselves.

“We understand basic economics. We understand our communities,” Williams said.

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