NCTA: Broadcasters Want a Free Ride


Washington — Those who sling mud lose ground. In the epic-length digital-TV battle between cable and broadcasters, the supply of wet dirt never seems to run out.

Last week, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association accused broadcasters of wanting “to take a free ride” on cable systems regardless of the impact on cable programmers and subscribers.

“'Come and take a free ride' was a popular lyric in the 1970s, but no one ever seriously believed that it should become the basis for a public-policy proposal. That is, until now,” the NCTA said in a seven-page analysis sent to every member of Congress late last month.

The NCTA is attempting to chill any Capitol Hill enthusiasm behind a National Association of Broadcasters legislative proposal that would force cable operators to carry multiple digital-programming services offered by local TV stations that elect mandatory carriage.

Current law, as interpreted by the Federal Communications Commission, entitles a must-carry station to one programming service on cable systems. Otherwise, TV stations are entitled to negotiate cable carriage for as many programming services as the market will bear.

No bill with a serious chance of passing has emerged that includes a multicast must-carry mandate. But Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who is working on ending the transition to digital-only transmission in 2009, supports a multiple-carriage requirement for channels that have a public-service focus, such as news and weather reports.

In the paper, the NCTA accused broadcasters of seeking government carriage largess no matter what the impact on operators' channel capacity or cable programmers' ability to gain or retain access to cable homes.

“Must-carry was established to preserve the availability of broadcast stations for over-the-air viewers, not to guarantee broadcasters a prescribed amount of bandwidth on cable systems,” the NCTA said.

The cable group also contended that a multicast mandate would likely violate the First and Fifth Amendments.

In its own paper, which surfaced in late June, the NAB said cable opposed multicast must-carry because innovative local broadcast services would represent a competitive threat without placing additional demand on channel capacity.

“Where a station chooses to use DTV for one single high-definition programming stream or multiple standard-definition digital-programming streams, the occupied bandwidth remains the same,” the NAB said, adding, “6 MHz is 6 MHz.”

Specifically addressing the NCTA “free ride” paper, NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said the cable trade group rehashed “tired old rhetoric in asking Congress to insulate the cable cartel from competition from local broadcasters and other programmers.”