Copps Aide: Leased-Access Ruling Was Reasonable Approach

A top aide to Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps said Tuesday that he does not think the commission's recent vote to cap leased-access rates and tighten the rules was an attempt by the FCC to ensure smaller, non-vertically integrated networks could buy their way onto cable lineups, though it was a way to give them an opportunity to do so at reasonable rates.

Senior legal advisor Rick Chessen told an Association of Cable Communicators crowd in Washington, D.C., Tuesday that it was Congress that came up with the mandate to set aside capacity for commercial leased access and that the FCC simply reviewed the process as a way to ensure that the rates, terms and conditions were reasonable.

The FCC decided to change the rate standard from an average implicated fee to the "lowest" or "marginal" rate figuring that cable would bump its least lucrative programming to make room for the leased programming.

Diane Burstein, vice president and deputy general counsel at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, countered that a D.C. Court of Appeals upheld the earlier standard and called the FCC's changes a complete reversal; slammed the agency's decision to cap rates at 10 cents per subscriber, per month as pulled out of thin air; and argued that the changes would hurt cable's business and be a paperwork burden, as well.

NCTA has filed suit against the rules and asked the FCC to stay them while the court considers that appeal.

Christina Pauze, legal advisor to FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, echoed Burstein's concerns about the changes, saying that leased access itself was not a viable model and could lead to diverse niche channels being bumped for leased-access channels.

And in good news for small cable operators, both Pauze and Chessen said their respective bosses wanted the FCC to move quickly on a request for a blanket waiver from the FCC's dual-carriage requirement, which mandates that all cable operators provide a "viewable" TV-station signal for all of its must-carry stations after the switch to digital TV, even if that means both analog and digital versions.

The FCC recently allowed satellite-TV providers to phase in their local-station carriage after the transition, and Copps wants similar flexibility for small cable operators, Chessen said.

Pauze said McDowell also wanted swift action and supports a blanket waiver from the dual-carriage/viewability rules for smaller operators, which the NCTA also backs.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.