NCTA: Choice is Choice, Says Martin

Kevin Martin and the cable industry don't see eye to eye on a lot of things, but the FCC Chairman was accentuating the positive in his speech to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association convention in Las Vegas.

He came not to bury cable, but to praise it, at least for its broadband and phone service rollouts, while urging it to adopt a la carte and suggesting the government should do so if cable didn't.

NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow told B&C last week

that a la carte may be in cable's future if the marketplace--not government regulations or laws or pressure--dictates it .

According to a text of the speech, Martin said he was surprised to have been invited to speak given headlines in the press like "NCTA Heaps Scorn on FCC Plans" and "Chairman Vs. Cable."

By contrast, Martin didn't make a planned appearance at the National Association of Broadcasters convention last month, where he would almost certainly have been hailed for his support of multicast must-carry.

Martin said he was trying to be evenhanded, choosing deregulation sometimes and enforcing existing regulations other times, all according to whether or not it leveled the playing field and encouraged competition. "As a result," he said, "this means that sometimes my policies favor the cable industry - as they typically do when it is a matter of entry into new markets like the voice market. And, sometimes they do not - like when it is an issue of someone else's entry into the video market." That was a reference to the FCC's decision to loosen the video franchise rules for new telco entrants.

Martin told the crowd he was an "avid cable customer" with digital cable service and three set-top boxes. He praised the industry for its rollout of broadband and phone service--"You have succeeded where others have failed, providing the most successful and sustainable competition in the voice market," he said, and pointed out that the had worked to ensure they were not required to underwrite their telco competitors, had access to those competitors' lines and numbers for cable phone service, and was on the same page when it came to not mandating network neutrality.

As expected, "consumer choice" in the video market was where Martin diverged from his cable audience. Pointing to a la carte offerings in Canada, and invoking the near doubling of basic cable rates since the 1996 Telecommunications Act deregulated those rates, Martin made his pitch for per-channel pricing.

He argued that government could mandate it without First Amendment problems, saying it was an economic issue that likely didn't raise First Amendment issues. ".  While the Constitution protects the right to speak, it certainly doesn’t protect a right to get paid for that speech." But he said that even if it did have First Amendment implications, a la carte did not favor or disfavor particular types of speech.

That is a point the cable industry and any number of minority-targeted programmers dispute, arguing that the niche channels would suffer disproportionately under that regiime.

In his prepared text, Martin even used the a la carte issue to pitch multicast must-carry, in which cable systems would be required to carry all of a TV stations free, ad-supported DTV channels, not simply the digital replication of their analog channel, as the FCC has concluded before.

Martin said cable has argued against a la carte by saying that subscribers should be able to pick and choose their channels rather than have programming forced on them. "But if that is really your belief, then it should hold true whether we are talking about broadcast channels or your own cable programming channels.  You can’t have it both ways," he said.

"Fundamentally, I agree that consumer choice should be paramount. And if you advocate subjecting broadcast channels to consumer choice then why shouldn't cable channels be similarly subject to free market choices as well."

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.