Multicast Must-Carry Is No Answer

Lowell Paxson's Airtime (Nov. 24) repeats the sentiment that dual, multicast must-carry is "necessary to ensure a successful [digital] transition." What it does not answer is why.

No doubt, compelling high-definition digital program services over the air and by cable are necessary to persuade Americans to buy digital receivers. That's why FCC Chairman Powell's plan to encourage cable carriage of HD—and cable's enthusiastic response to it—gave a boost to the transition. As of Dec. 1, in 96 of the top 100 markets, including all of the top 30, at least one operator offered HD programming. Cable is carrying more than 300 digital broadcast signals, all pursuant to marketplace negotiations. These broadcast stations—along with HD cable networks like HBO, ESPN, Showtime and Discovery—give consumers a reason to buy an HD set this season.

Similarly, voluntary efforts to smooth the technology hurdles, like the cable/consumer-electronics manufacturers agreements on plug-and-play sets, will make the decision to buy an HD set easier.

What does a multicast must-carry broadcaster add to the incentives to invest in an HD set? From what has been offered so far, nothing. Certainly not innovative high-def programs.

Repeatedly proclaiming a statutory entitlement to digital multicast during the transition (never mind that the FCC concluded otherwise in 2001), must-carry advocates share far fewer words as to how
they would use dual multicast to persuade a consumer to buy a digital TV. In Paxson Communications' case, the evidence isn't too encouraging.

Mr. Paxson's commitment to dual multicast as a transition expeditor may be a bit wobbly. "I and about 80 other broadcasters went out and farmed this spectrum frontier," he told The Hollywood Reporter in April 2002. "No one else wanted it until they figured out it was beach-front property. Why shouldn't we make some money?" He added, "If you want me to leave early, I'm willing to do it if I get paid. If you pay me, I'll do it. If not, I won't."

Or consider that, until this payday arrives, Paxson stations haven't been in the forefront of program innovation. According to last July 21's BROADCASTING & CABLE, "Paxson shut down its West Coast offices, returned to afternoons of infomercials ... and backed off on original programming."

So we could be forgiven if we conclude, based on what broadcasters electing must-carry have said and done so far, that their digital multicast may look like infomercials on free spectrum granted for the transition. Did Congress really mean to put infomercials ahead of all other speakers like C-SPAN or Discovery Times? Will forced carriage of this content convince consumers they need a new HD set? No, and no.

Mr. Paxson is right that completing the digital transition involves "much left to accomplish." But a false start like forced dual carriage of multicast broadcasting (such as it appears to be) takes us farther from, not closer to, the end point.