Martin: Multicasting Is Key Benefit for Hispanics

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin took the opportunity of a speech to a Hispanic technology summit in Washington, D.C., Tuesday to pitch his multicast-must-carry proposal, which would require cable operators to carry broadcasters' digital-multicast channels.

Martin pointed out that Spanish-speaking viewers make up one-third of the 15 million homes that rely on analog TV -- the ones that will be most affected when the analog signal is shut off to most over-the-air viewers in February 2009.

Martin also talked of the "burden" -- he repeated the word three times -- of having to buy a converter box or digital TV that the government is imposing through the switch, saying that requiring cable to carry new free Spanish-language channels could turn that burden into a benefit.

In fact, Martin suggested multicast must-carry might be the only way for Spanish-language viewers to reap the new-channel benefits of DTV -- channels he said broadcasters like Univision Communications and Telemundo are ready to produce if they can be guaranteed carriage.

"Today, there simply is not an economic model by which a broadcaster can support a free

programming stream that reaches only over-the-air households," he argued. "As a result, without the guarantee of cable carriage, Spanish-language broadcasters are not able to invest in creating a second or third free programming stream."

But Martin went even further in framing the carriage issue in terms of the benefits to his audience. "Ensuring that at least Spanish-language broadcasters have the realistic opportunity to multicast may be the single most important thing the commission can do to foster additional Spanish-language programming, to ease the burden of the transition on Spanish-speaking households and to guarantee that Spanish-speaking homes receive all of the benefits of digital broadcasting," he said.

Martin tried to grant broadcasters multicast must-carry in June 2006, but he could not muster the votes. He tried to put some pressure on the other commissioners Tuesday, saying, "I remain hopeful that a majority of commissioners will realize the potential this item has to allow Americans, particularly Spanish-speaking viewers, to realize the full benefit of the digital transition."

Opponents of multicast must-carry pointed out that the FCC has twice ruled that cable is only required to carry a DTV replica of a station's primary signal, although the agency recently voted to require cable operators to deliver both a digital and analog signal after the DTV transition if that is what it takes to keep viewers' screens from going dark.

While the cable industry essentially signed of on the three-year carriage mandate, it pointed out that all it really takes is the economic incentive of keeping its paying customers happy.

And on the topic of keeping people happy, both Martin and National Telecommunications & Information Administration chief John Kneuer, who is responsible for the DTV-to-analog converter box program, said they thought illegal aliens should be eligible for the coupons, according to a story by Multichannel News' Ted Hearn

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.