Groups Make Must-Carry Cases

As expected, trade groups for TV stations Thursday asked the Federal Communications Commission to rethink its Feb. 10 decision denying expanded cable-carriage rights in the digital era.

The National Association of Broadcasters, the Association for Maximum Service Television and network affiliates filed petitions for reconsideration asking the FCC to grant broadcast stations the right to demand that their local cable operators carry the multiple programming streams that converting to digital allows a station to offer, rather than just a single "primary" stream the FCC says they are entitled to.

The broadcasters said the FCC's grounds for denying multicast carriage rights were faulty.

The broadcasters said the 1992 law imposes must-carry obligations on cable that requires operators to carry all portions of a local station's signal that is accessible for free. "Non-subscription digital programming must be carried; subscription streams may be stripped," wrote NAB and MSTV.

Broadcasters also rejected the FCC argument that mandated multicast carriage would strain cable operators' channel capacity. "Cable capacity has doubled or tripled since 1992 and that full digital carriage would require half the capacity of analog carriage," wrote the affiliates for ABC, CBS and NBC/Telemundo.

Broadcasters also pointed out that the FCC used too high a standard to judge whether expanded carriage rights would unduly infringe upon cable operators' free speech rights. In its review, the FCC demanded proof that multicast carriage rights were "necessary" or "essential" to achieving the government's interest in promoting the transition to all-digital broadcasting. However, the Supreme Court in upholding analog must-carry rights in 1994 ruled that all that was needed was evidence that carriage rights would "promote" the government's interest in strengthening free over-the-air broadcasting.

Broadcasters insist that mandatory cable carriage is essential to the success of the transition to digital-only TV because 65% of the country's 102 TV homes rely on cable to receive their television. None of those homes would be able to take advantage of each stations' multicasting ability in their markets if their local operators aren't carrying the full range of programming streams.

Cable operators oppose mandatory multicast as an infringement on their First Amendment rights that would force them to eliminate some less-watched cable nets from their channel lineups.

Separate from the commercial broadcast groups, the Minority Media Telecommunications Council asked the FCC to consider a counterproposal to the full multicast carriage rights sought by the big broadcast trade groups.

Instead, MMTC wants carriage rights only for program streams that contain an FCC-set amount of locally originated programming. "It is a compromise and a good one because it puts the public's interest in a robust market for local programming first," MMTC wrote.

MMTC is a non-profit group focused on increasing minority ownership of broadcast properties.

MMTC also suggested capping the amount of broadcast programming they would be required to carry to the equivalent of four, 24-hour daily streams that cable would be required to carry, the same amount that the cable industry has agreed to carry for public television stations.

To foster carriage of more minority owned stations, MMTC asked that the 910 low-power TV stations meeting FCC local programming requirements required for the same interference protections as full power stations also receive multicast carriage rights.

The inclusion of those low-power stations would ensure that more minority voices are carried on cable because roughly 10% of those stations are owned by minorities. Among commercial full-power stations, minorities own only 21 of 1,366 stations, or 1.5%.