Cable: No LPTV Must-Carry

Cable operators are rejecting a proposal by Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin that would allow hundreds of local TV stations to demand cable carriage for the first time.

Martin has endorsed new rules that would require cable operators to distribute so-called Class A stations, which operate at low power and have very limited mandatory cable access today.

Martin, who has not teed the issue up for a vote, is hoping that cable carriage will increase the value of Class A stations, making it easier for them to raise capital to finance their upgrades to all-digital transmission.

But the cable industry claims the FCC isn’t empowered to help Class A stations in the manner Martin wants.

“[Federal law] unambiguously precludes granting full must-carry rights to Class A stations,” Time Warner Cable said in comments filed Wednesday at the FCC.

NCTA and Cablevision Systems Corp. joined Time Warner in arguing that the FCC has no authority from Congress to act on behalf of Class A stations and that placing further demands on cable bandwidth to accommodate TV stations would violate the First Amendment.

“NCTA has long supported efforts to promote diversity in the communications arena. But forcing cable carriage of all Class A low-power television stations is not the way to achieve that goal, and Congress has not given the FCC authority to do so,” NCTA said in its FCC comments.

All 1,756 full-power TV stations, commercial and noncommercial, have a legal right to demand cable carriage under a 1992 law upheld by the Supreme Court and celebrated by the National Association Broadcasters.

The NAB — which represents hundreds of full-power independent affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox — filed comments at the FCC, but it was silent on questions related to mandatory carriage of Class A stations.

“NAB did not address the low-power TV issue, because our board has not taken a formal position on it,” said NAB spokesman Kris Jones.

Amy Brown, executive director and secretary of the Community Broadcasters Association, the trade group for low-power TV stations, said she had “no clue” why NAB didn’t toss its support behind its low-power brethren.

“Maybe it’s competition in the marketplace for ad dollars or dominance. Maybe just plain arrogance,” Brown said.

The country’s 556 Class-A stations do not have cable carriage rights except in limited circumstances in some of the most rural parts of the country.

Low-power TV signals travel about 20 miles compared with full-power signals whose range extends as far as 80 miles.

Although full-power stations need to cut over to all-digital transmission on Feb. 17, 2009, low-power stations are not legally beholden to the same deadline.

In February, NAB created a low-power TV committee after Martin realized that potentially millions of digital-to-analog TV converter boxes being subsidized with federal tax money would not pass-through analog signals, cutting off low-power TV stations from their audience.

To help solve the problem, Martin urged cable operators to carry 2,800 low-power TV stations on a voluntary basis where capacity was available.