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FCC’s Copps Still Undecided on Mandatory Wholesale a la Carte

Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps said he is still looking at "both sides" of the issue of mandatory wholesale a la carte -- FCC chairman Kevin Martin's proposal to prevent cable programmers from bundling must-have channels with less popular ones.

The chairman has argued that wholesale unbundling of channels could lower rates and would give consumers greater choice over content, while cable companies said it would be the government interfering with its business model to the detriment of prices and service.

At a press conference Tuesday, Copps said he was "having a lot of meetings with a lot of folks involved," adding, "I think we all understand some of the problems that creates." He conceded that one of those could be the effect on the business models of smaller cable operators.

"I am trying to get a fuller understanding of both sides of the issue before we opine much further on it. We all understand what has happened to cable rates. We all understand the high cost of programming,” he said. "Do folks seem to have legitimate arguments, the smaller operators, about the cost of these? Yes. We are in the midst of discussions, and I am trying to listen to the other side of the argument."

Copps said he thought that if the FCC decided to mandate it, it could probably do so without getting into per-channel price regulation. "It depends on how you craft the rules, but I would imagine it is within the ability of us to craft some rules that wouldn't necessarily go to regulating price by price," he added.

Copps reiterated his displeasure with the DTV transition and what he sees as the lack of coordinated message, which he said could lead to a consumer backlash Feb. 17, 2009, adding that if viewers see snow Feb. 17, it could be a cold winter at the FCC and elsewhere.

Asked where the blame rested, he said with all of the agencies for not pushing for more coordination. Quoting comic-strip icon Pogo, he said: "We have met the enemy and it is us," adding, "Everybody is pretty much guilty for not stepping up and doing what needs to be done," which, he said, should include a test market to work the bugs out beforehand.

"Even Broadway shows open on the road and try to get the kinks out before they take it to Broadway,” Copps said. “And this act ain't Broadway yet or anywhere close to it."

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.