FCC Sinks Multicast Must-Carry

In a victory for cable that took four years to achieve, the Federal Communications Commission voted 4-1 Thursday to reject a rule that would require cable operators to carry multiple programming services transmitted by digital-TV stations.

The National Association of Broadcasters pushed for multicast must-carry, saying that current rules that require carriage of just one programming service would handicap TV stations in their competitive struggle with cable and satellite systems offering hundreds of channels.

Voting to defeat multicast must-carry were FCC chairman Michael Powell and commissioners Kathleen Abernathy, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps. Commissioner Kevin Martin backed broadcasters.

The vote was the coda to a monumental lobbying struggle between the NAB and the cable industry that started four years ago when the agency rejected multicast must-carry for the first time.

As a legal matter, cable systems are required to carry a TV station’s “primary video.” In 2001, the FCC said “primary” meant one programming service, not many. The ruling Thursday reaffirmed the 2001 decision.

The NAB insisted that “primary” could mean several, as in “primary” colors, and that the FCC should rely on that expansive definition to mandate cable carriage of all programming services that a TV station provides free-of-charge to over-the-air viewers.

The debate now shifts from the FCC to the courts and Congress. Litigation -- which would likely include a stop at the U.S. Supreme Court -- could take three years or longer. Congress is planning to overhaul telecommunications laws in the months ahead -- an effort that might include revisions to cable-carriage obligations for digital-TV stations.

In a 5-0 vote, the commission also rejected dual must-carry -- carriage of both TV stations’ analog and digital signals -- during the digital-TV transition.