Powell Ready to Nix Multicasting

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Cable operators would not have to carry multiple digital services provided by local TV stations under a plan favored by Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell, an FCC source confirmed Thursday.

TV stations want carriage of all free services by cable, but Powell is sticking to his 2001 vote that cable should be required to carry just one programming service, the source said.

The issue of so-called multicast must-carry refers to the small percentage of commercial TV stations that elect mandatory cable carriage. All public stations are required to elect must-carry and, thus, would be hurt the most by Powell’s proposal.

Powell’s approach would not deny stations that negotiate carriage with cable operators the right to demand distribution of multiple services.

Powell’s decision to advance the multicast issue comes as a federal court considers a request by Paxson Communications Corp., a large TV-station owner, to force the FCC to issue final cable-carriage rules for digital-TV stations within 30 days.

The FCC told the court that Paxson’s request should be denied because final rules were issued in January 2001 and rejected multicasting rights for digital-TV stations.

Paxson and other TV stations asked the FCC to reconsider. Because the FCC failed to take action on the reconsideration request, Paxson went to court to force the agency’s hand.

An FCC source confirmed that Powell intends for the five-member agency to vote on multicasting at its Feb. 10 meeting.

It was unclear whether Powell wants to couple the multicasting issue with a broader plan to end TV stations’ transition to all-digital broadcasting by Dec. 31, 2008. Under that plan, developed by FCC staff, digital-TV stations would possess multicast must-carry rights.

In recent years, Powell has signaled his willingness to move the multicast issue, but divisions among FCC members sidetracked a vote.

Republican commissioner Kevin Martin supports broadcasters, while fellow Republican commissioner Kathleen Abernathy has been less clear about how she would vote.

Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein are expected to back broadcasters, but not before the FCC has adopted a range of public-interest obligations for digital-TV stations.

Many broadcasters have argued that multicast-carriage rights are critical to the industry’s ability to compete in a world of hundreds of channels on pay TV platforms.

But the cable industry has countered that handing TV stations many additional slots on their systems would, in addition to raising serious First Amendment issues, tempt stations to air infomercials and other low-value content aimed at reaping quick profits.

Cable also argued that TV stations should not be able to claim channel space by default when cable networks -- which don’t have FCC licenses -- need to bargain for carriage.

In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a law requiring cable operators to allocate one-third of their channels for TV stations demanding carriage was consistent with the First Amendment. Multicast must-carry was not directly addressed in that case.

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