Q&A: Ion's Lawson Makes Case For Digital Multicast

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John Lawson, executive vice president of Ion Media Networks, the nation’s largest TV-station group, says as soon as new Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski is installed, Ion will make another push to gain mandated cable carriage for its Urban TV multicast channel. Acting FCC chairman Michael Copps recently said the transition to digital TV won’t be complete until stations use their channels to diversify the broadcast landscape, and Lawson says cable must-carry should be part of the equation. He spoke recently with Multichannel News Washington bureau chief John Eggerton.

MCN: Your TV stations are getting a big potential audience boost from the DTV transition because they are UHFs, but most TV station viewership is on cable. In terms of the multicast networks you program on your owned station’s digital spectrum — how is your cable coverage?

John Lawson: It’s poor. We have had a lot of trouble convincing our cable friends to carry our Qubo kids and Ion Life channels.

MCN: Do you see an opening with new the president’s pick for FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, who is a founding board member of Common Sense Media?

JL: Yes, our philosophy is in line with Common Sense Media, which is that there need to be policies that encourage positive alternatives for parents and children. New laws shouldn’t be necessary, but if people who control the bottlenecks aren’t willing to work with people like us, then, at some point the government does have to step in.

MCN: Is Urban TV, your proposed African-American-targeted network with BET founder Bob Johnson, still alive?

JL: Definitely. We have been keeping our powder dry in terms of activity at the commission. We filed applications [at the FCC] for spectrum sharing, which are at the Media Bureau. We are waiting for the new commissioners to be sworn in before we make another run at it. But, given the fact that in the Obama-Biden technology innovation plan, which Julius Genachowski had a lot to do with writing, diversity of media ownership and minority ownership are at the very top of the list, we definitely are encouraged.

MCN: Isn’t Copps’ statement an opening to argue that the other side of getting that programming out there is getting it on cable?

JL: Yes, multicasting to be viable has to have distribution, and we can’t reach viable distribution levels without cable carriage. So, for that UHF bandwidth licensed to broadcasters to be fully utilized in the public interest, we need cable carriage.