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Hillary Clinton Backs NPRM On Low-Power Must Carry

While Commission Democrats, and some Republicans for that matter, were not ready to vote on a notice of proposed rulemaking to grant some low-power stations must-carry status on cable, at least one former Democratic presidential candidate was.

According to a copy of a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin obtained by B&C, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) sent to the chairman and the other four commissioners the day before the scheduled Oct. 15 meeting expressing support for his proposal as a spur to diversity of ownership and localism, points Martin has made in pushing for the item.

In the letter, dated Oct. 14, she urged all the commissioners to give "due consideration" to the item, which actually wound up being pulled from the agenda after the other four commissioners wanted carriage to be part of an inquiry rather than a proposed rule. But she went beyond that to express her support for a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on carriage.

Clinton cited portions of Martin's proposed NPRM that would have 1) "gather[ed] views of the public" on migrating Class A low power stations to full power status, "thereby affording such stations to [sic] must-carry rights on cable television systems and that would have 2) permitted additional low-powers to become Class A's.

"It has been my experience that these stations advance the interests of localism, offer alternative viewpoints and enhance the opportunities for diversity in ownership," she wrote to the FCC. "In order for these important local voices to remain viable, they should be granted a status that will enable them to continue to reach as wide an audience as possible, much like other stations. I believe that there would be many positive benefits that would be derived through adoption of the NPRM."

Clinton said she thought granting must-carry to low-power stations would "greatly increase the amount and quality of local content on television mitigate the negative effects of greater concentration of media ownership, and open up new opportunities for minority, urban, rural, religious, and small business broadcasters."

"We are thrilled that she wrote that letter and to have her support," said Peter Tannenwald, counsel to low-power lobby Community Broadcasters Association. "We are continuing to address the concerns of the commissioners as best we can and we hope that they will recognize the importance of all of these issues to the future of our industry.

According to sources with knowledge of the commissioners' positions, all but Martin were unwilling to make carriage part of an NPRM, preferring instead to make it part of a notice of inquiry so the FCC could collect more information on the issue, including the impact on cable capacity and whether the FCC had the authority to expand must-carry. In fact, a majority of the commissioners then voted to approve a modified version of the item that would make carriage part of an NOI, not an NPRM.

But the chairman can either ask for an extension of time for his vote on the new item, which he has not cast, or pull the item entirely given that it is materially different from the one he proposed, said an FCC source. Martin has said the NOI is insufficient and that he will continue to push for an NPRM. A spokesman for the chairman said Wednesday that "the most effective way to help low-power stations is to require must-carry rights, and the only way to accomplish that is through a notice of proposed rulemaking."

Amy Brown, executive director of the CBA, says that they are pushing for a vote on Martin's original proposal. CBA says that an NOI is a waste of time and money, and that if the commission is going to vote it down the NPRM, it should be on the record as doing so, not by trying to placate the low-power industry with the NOI.

The item already voted by the other four commissioners would make a 2012 hard date for low-power’s switch to digital part of a rulemaking, while keeping the carriage item an inquiry. But that is mandating the requirement without providing the cable carriage that could underwrite that investment, suggested Brown.