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Comcast Urges No Must-Carry Expansion

Comcast is urging the Federal Communications Commission to resist the adoption of rules that would expand the boundaries of a law that allows TV stations to demand systemwide distribution from local cable systems.

“There is no legal or factual basis for expanding the must-carry requirements that have previously been established by the [FCC] -- which have consistently been limited to carriage in a single format of a single programming stream per broadcast licensee,” Comcast outside counsel James Casserly said in an April 17 letter to the FCC.

Casserly’s two-page letter was a summary of a phone conversation held the previous day with Michelle Carey, Martin’s senior legal adviser on media issues.

The FCC is expected to vote April 25 on a plan backed by chairman Kevin Martin that would allow TV stations to demand cable carriage in analog and digital following the cessation of analog broadcasting Feb. 17, 2009. Cable operators with an all-digital platform -- so that all subscribers can view digital-TV signals with set-top boxes or cable-ready DTV sets -- could escape the dual-carriage mandate.

In a second proposal, Martin wants to award mandatory cable-carriage rights to a class of FCC-defined special entities that have leased surplus spectrum from local TV stations. However, the FCC isn’t scheduled to vote on such a plan at the April 25 meeting.

“Must-carry already rests on a shaky legal foundation, and any expansion of must-carry obligations will be extremely vulnerable on statutory and constitutional grounds,” Casserly wrote.

In 1997, the Supreme Court upheld in a 5-4 vote provisions of the 1992 Cable Act that imposed must-carry obligations on cable systems.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable -- which are probably many years from being exclusively digital -- have promised to provide dual carriage for must-carry stations on a temporary basis so that subscribers don’t lose access to local TV programming.

But Martin’s approach could result in triple carriage -- once in analog and twice in digital (standard and HD), because millions of standard-definition set-top boxes can’t display an HD picture in SD.

“Any government requirement to double- or triple-cast all local broadcast channels would impose a vastly increased burden on scarce bandwidth and would inevitably displace other programming that consumers value,” Casserly said.