The National Association of Broadcasters is sponsoring a “misinformation campaign” in an effort to derail a Federal Communications Commission vote Thursday that is expected to favor cable, National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Robert Sachs said Monday.
In a letter to members of Congress, Sachs said the NAB is spreading “gross misstatements” to pressure the FCC to postpone the vote, which is expected to deny mandatory cable carriage of multiple programming services that each DTV station is capable of transmitting. That could be five or six services, compared to cable’s current obligation to carry a single service.
NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said the NCTA’s attack on the TV-station lobby group is part of an ongoing effort to shield pay television from the multiple free services provided by local TV stations.
“The only misinformation campaign being waged is coming from NCTA. Cable gatekeepers are fighting against multicasting for one reason and one reason only: because a ‘pro-multicasting’ ruling from the FCC would result in an explosion of free programming choices for consumers,” Wharton said.
In remarks here last Thursday, Philip Lombardo, CEO of Citadel Communications Co. and Joint Board chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters, accused FCC chairman Michael Powell of rushing the multicast must carry vote.
Sachs told members of Congress that Thursday’s vote is intended to culminate a long examination of the hotly debated carriage issue. At least one broadcaster — Paxson Communications Corp. — has even gone to court in an effort to force an FCC vote within 30 days.
“To hear it from NAB, the FCC is rushing to judgment on the question of ‘digital multicast must-carry.’ ” Sachs said. “In fact, this issue has been pending before the [FCC] for four years.”
The NAB has rounded up support on Capitol Hill either in favor of postponing the vote or approving multicast must carry. Last week, 12 lawmakers, including Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to sent FCC chairman Michael Powell a letter saying the absence of expanded cable carriage rights for DTV stations would leave stations “irreparably harmed.”
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has sent word to the FCC through his aides that he supported some degree of multicast must carry, but he hasn’t putting anything in writing, according to publish reports.
But other Capitol Hill heavy hitters have remained quiet, including Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan. Barton has been a vocal opponent of any mandatory carriage requirements on cable, analog or digital.
Also notably absent from the debate are Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, and the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts.
Broadcasting sources have said that key Capitol Hill lawmakers have been unwilling to fight for multicasting because when they agreed to loan every TV station a free second channel for digital, they believed the new channel should be used to offer high definition TV.
Broadcasters said that if carriage of HDTV were at risk, many more Capitol Hill lawmakers would be pressing the FCC to postpone the vote.
The FCC is expected to reaffirm that after the transition to digital-only transmission, cable will be required to carry one service from each station, whether an HDTV or standard definition signal. Carriage of additional programming has to be negotiated.
“What the ‘digital multicasting must-carry’ is really about is an effort by TV broadcasters to gain preferential carriage rights over all other programmers for channels that, in most cases, don’t even exist,” Sachs told Congress.
However, some broadcasters have talked about using the digital spectrum to launch 24-hour weather and children’s TV channels. And broadcasters have said that multicasting channels won’t advance beyond the drawing board until their cable carriage rights are clearly understood.
Today, the vast majority of TV stations — about 80%, according to the FCC — negotiate cable carriage rather than elect mandatory carriage. Cable officials have said there is no reason why the same proportion of TV stations couldn’t bargain for carriage of their digital services.