Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) Thursday gave the green light for the Federal Communications Commission to force cable operators to carry multiple digital-TV signals, saying that his comments on the subject one day earlier were misunderstood.
“It’s their duty, and I’m happy to see them do it,” Stevens told reporters on Capitol Hill.
On Wednesday, Stevens indicated that the FCC should defer to Congress before making changes to mandatory cable-carriage rules established in the 1992 Cable Act.
"I hope that if it's going to be done, it'll be done by Congress and not the FCC," Stevens told reporters after giving an address to hundreds of cable-industry officials.
On Thursday, Stevens said he had clarified his position with FCC chairman Kevin Martin, a longtime advocate of multicast must-carry.
“I sent a letter to him. I said that’s not what I said, not what I meant,” Stevens said following a Capitol Hill ceremony marking final passage of a bill raising broadcast-indecency fines to a maximum $325,000 per offense.
In March 2005, Stevens announced support for mandatory cable carriage of multiple digital-TV services if the programming had a public-interest orientation.
Martin, a Republican, is attempting to round up a majority at the FCC to require cable operators to carry every digital-programming service beamed by a single TV station in an expansion of current rules that mandate carriage of a single programming service per station. Republicans hold a 3-2 majority at the agency.
The FCC could vote to adopt the new must-carry rules at its June 21 public meeting. The commission has twice rejected multicast must-carry, both under Democratic FCC chairman William Kennard in January 2001 and under Republican FCC chairman Michael Powell in February 2005, with Martin the lone dissenter in the second vote.
“They have the right to go forward. They have the facilities. They have the staff to do it. I’m happy they are going forward,” Stevens said.
Martin is seeking adoption of multicast must-carry rules over the strong objection of the cable industry, which claims that TV stations would flood cable systems with low-value content and occupy channels that would otherwise go to cable networks offering services that consumers actually desire. Cable also insists that expansion of the must-carry regime would violate the First and Fifth Amendments.
In a letter Thursday to Martin, National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow urged rejection of multicast must-carry.
“The issue of multicast must-carry is not a close call. As a statutory matter, the plain language of the [1992 Cable Act] does not authorize such carriage. As a constitutional matter, even if the language of the act were ambiguous, construing it to require multicast carriage would run afoul of the First and Fifth Amendments,” McSlarrow said.
Broadcasters argued that multicast must-carry would lead to an explosion in local content and expedite consumer adoption of digital-TV sets. Without guaranteed cable carriage, multiples digital-TV services won’t be economically viable, broadcasters claimed.
Stevens said reporters misinterpreted his initial comments. FCC rules, he noted, are subject to change by a future FCC, while a must-carry law passed by Congress could not be changed by the FCC.
The notion that he insisted that the FCC should not act on multicast must-carry was incorrect, he added.
“I did not say that. Someone said to me yesterday that the FCC was going to make a law. I told them, ‘Look, the FCC makes regulations, we make the laws.’ They are proceeding. I’ll hope they’ll be able to do it,” Stevens said.
Whether or not the FCC adopts rules, Congress would likely address the multicast must-carry issue, Stevens said.
“People should realize that’s going to be regulation. It will be subject to consideration by us while we get to the full consideration of the whole digital transition, and that’s got to be one of the things that is put to rest,” he added. “And it can only be put to rest by having a law that cannot be changed by administrative decisions.”