McSlarrow Fires Back at FCC's Martin

Las Vegas -- Responding to cable-hostile regulatory stances of Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin, National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow said Tuesday that government intervention in the video-programming market -- including a la carte mandates Martin wants -- was unnecessary because the pay TV market is a hotly competitive business.

"If one assumes that the video marketplace is one of intense competition, then the only sensible policy outcome is one where the government gets out of the way and lets the free market flourish," McSlarrow said in a Cable Show ‘07 speech here. "I think that marketplace is competitive and every cable operator knows that [it is] in a competitive firefight with satellite distributors and, now, telephone companies."

On Monday, Martin repeated in a Cable Show speech his steadfast support for the a la carte sale of cable networks and the forced cable carriage of multiple digital-programming streams transmitted by local TV stations free-of-charge to the viewing public.

Cable has been resisting Martin on both matters almost since the day he became chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based regulatory agency in March 2005.

McSlarrow said it was "puzzling that chairman Martin does not take" a hands-off approach to video regulation.

"I was struck by his discussion of mandated a la carte and mandated multicast carriage. There are many reasons why neither of those ideas benefits consumers," McSlarrow said. "A la carte is a form of government-enforced unbundling of what is known as the expanded-basic tier. Mandated multicast carriage produces exactly the opposite result. It forces the bundling of broadcast programming that apparently couldn’t gain carriage in a free market."

Those policies, McSlarrow added, didn't add up.

"You can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every channel must be sold separately and then require that other programming must be added to the expanded-basic tier," McSlarrow said.

The day before, Martin said cable was trying to have it "both ways" by denying consumers a la carte options and denying TV stations consumer access to their multicasting services.

The FCC, Martin has said repeatedly, lacks the authority to impose a la carte on cable. As a result, he has endorsed efforts on Capitol Hill to pass legislation that would break up expanded basic, which is cable's most popular programming tier and includes dozens of channels, including ESPN, Discovery Channel and Fox News Channel.

On multicast must-carry, Martin is trying to get the FCC to adopt rules that would require cable carriage of programming supplied by entities designated by the FCC that lease surplus digital spectrum from local TV stations.

Just two weeks ago, the FCC launched a rulemaking that would require cable operators, following the termination of analog broadcasting Feb. 17, 2009, to distribute local TV signals of must-carry stations in both analog and digital. The mandate would go away once cable systems had converted to digital-only transmission. The NCTA is opposing that plan, claiming it would violate the First Amendment editorial rights of cable operators.

"Our policy positions on these issues reflect a consistent philosophy," McSlarrow said. "We believe a free market and consumer choice should determine how programming is offered and marketed to consumers, not government mandates that hurt diversity and grant preferential treatment to one class of programmers over another."