Stung by criticism over their alleged lack of local election coverage, broadcasters responded by doing what they have been known to do best: Blame the cable industry.
The latest blast at cable came in a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell from National Association of Broadcasters President Edward Fritts, who basically argued that broadcasters would expand political coverage if cable operators were forced to carry the programming.
Fritts was referring to the so-called multicast carriage issue. The NAB is seeking an FCC rule that would require cable operators to carry as many free digital-TV programming streams as one station can transmit. That could be one HDTV signal during primetime and five or six standard-definition signals during other dayparts.
“But unfortunately, the giant cable companies — who are anxious to avoid competition from a multiplicity of free local broadcast channels — have lobbied fiercely to block adoption of this FCC rule that would ensure consumer access to hundreds of more program options,” Fritts said July 2 in a one-page letter to McCain and Powell.
The cable industry has been fighting NAB’s request for a multicasting mandate for years. Operators claim federal law requires mandatory cable carriage of a single programming stream and nothing else.
Cable leaders have complained that instead of using the extra carriage rights to broadcast public-interest programming, TV stations would try to monetize the asset quickly by airing infomercials and home-shopping services, the antithesis of public-interest programming like election coverage.
“Since broadcasters have steadily reduced public-affairs programming in an analog world, there is absolutely no evidence or reason to believe that they will undertake more political coverage in a digital world,” National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokesman Brian Dietz said after seeing a copy of Fritts’s letter.
In June, McCain and Powell called on broadcasters to expand their election coverage in light of a study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School and the University of Wisconsin, which showed that more than half of the top-rate local news broadcast aired no campaign coverage in the seven weeks leading up to the 2002 elections.
“The same study also found when local broadcasters did air campaign stories on local news broadcast, only 24% of the stories were about issues,” McCain and Powell wrote in their June 16 letter. “The majority the stories focused on campaign strategy and polling data.
“While this information is newsworthy and interesting, it does not provide voters with the knowledge necessary to make an informed decision on whether to vote for a candidate.”
McCain and Powell sent the letter to Fritts; CBS Television Network CEO Leslie Moonves; NBC Universal CEO Robert Wright; The Walt Disney Co. president Robert Iger; and News Corp. president and chief operating officer Peter Chernin.
McCain and Powell concluded by challenging all local TV and radio stations “to ensure that they are providing their local communities with significant information on the political issues facing the community, candidates’ campaign platforms, and candidate debates during this election year.”
The call for greater election coverage came as the NAB celebrated its members’ annual public-service contributions in a report showing that TV and radio stations gave away the equivalent of $9.6 billion “through a combination of airtime donated for public service announcements (PSAs) and money raised for charity and disaster relief.”
TV stations have complained that questions about their political coverage have overlooked the fact that many candidates refuse free air time to debate and discuss the issues, based on advice from their political strategists.
“Each election season, politicians routinely turn down our offers of airtime for debates, interviews and candidate forums, in many cases because high-priced political consultants advise their clients not to appear in 'unscripted’ settings,” Fritts said in a separated July 2 letter to NAB’s membership.
Fritts’s letter did not explain how a multicast mandate on cable would convince candidates to avail themselves of free airtime that they aren’t exploiting today.
“It’s curious that the broadcasters are suggesting that multicasting would increase their local public-affairs coverage when they have steadfastly fought against having any public-service obligations applied to their digital signals,” NCTA’s Dietz added.
The FCC’s inaction on the multicast issue has frustrated the NAB. In 2001, the FCC agreed with cable that digital must-carry was limited to one programming stream.
The agency has not formally moved from that position, despite fierce lobbying by the NAB and NCTA.
In recent months, the FCC developed a DTV transition plan that at first called for granting multicast-carriage rights to those TV stations that return their spectrum on Dec. 31, 2008. But that component was dropped in subsequent drafts.