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Religious 'Voices' Call For Must-Carry

Just think of them as the digital protestants.

Religious Voices in Broadcasting, representing religious broadcasters who diverge from the National Religious Broadcasters on the issue of carriage (NRB is divided), have sent a letter to the co-chairmen of the Senate Commerce Committee calling for digital multicast must-carry as part of any upcoming DTV legislation.

The group, which includes Trinity and the Christian Television Network and more than a dozen other stations and groups, say that they are only viable now because of the 1992 Must Carry Act that mandated cable carriage of analog TV stations.

Calling the switch to digital an unfunded mandate for expensive dual analog/digital carriage that "disproporionately affected religious broadcasters," they wrote that mandated digital carriage is the "fair and reasonable solution for maintaining a level playing field for small, independent, and religious broadcasters in digital television."

The group argues that it supports a free market, but that without the negotiating power of affiliation with a large media conglomerate, they will not be able to negotiate carriage, "regardless of the compelling nature of our programming or consumer demand."

Voices does not support a la carte cable pricing, something some religious voices have backed as a way to control cable indecency. That's because they might not wind up on a lot of viewer's plates without being bundled into tiers of service.

But that didn't stop the group from invoking a la carte at the same time it was disassociating itself from the practice: "We find it somewhat disingenuous that cable would promote a strict interpretation of 'free market' practices for multicast must-carry while aruing against the free market as it relates to a la carte," they said.

The National Religious Broadcasters, which is holding its annual meeting next week, is divided on the multicasting issue, with broadcast members generally supportive, and cable members opposed, concerned that they could get bumped for broadcast stations. Then there are the 200 or so programming members, who likely divide along the lines of whether they are supplying cable channels or broadcast stations.