In Depth

FCC’s Martin Puts Channel Discrimination on Agenda for Dec. 18 Meeting

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin is proposing the agency speed its response to independent networks’ complaints that satellite and cable providers treat their owned channels and independent ones differently. Such discrimination could help the NFL, sports team owners and some new channels at the expense of cable systems.

Mr. Martin also is planning to set up a quick procedure for broadcasters who need to set up new translators to fill in gaps created in their signal areas because of the Feb. 17 switch from analog to digital TV.

Mr. Martin’s comments came at a news conference today in which he announced plans for the Dec. 18 FCC meeting, which is likely to be his second-to-last as FCC chairman. Mr. Martin again today declined to say if he will depart the FCC when Barack Obama becomes president Jan. 20.

Mr. Martin said the new procedure on discrimination complaints, if approved by other commissioners, would require the initial decision about whether a complaint is justified to be made within six months and would set clearer standards for “prima facie” discrimination by cable and satellite systems. Currently there is no time limit on deciding complaints.

Exactly what would happen after discrimination is confirmed is less clear. Mr. Martin’s proposal calls for the FCC to launch a rulemaking into some related issues, including into whether putting one channel in a “basic” package and another in a “premium” package qualifies as discrimination.

Mr. Martin’s comments come as the FCC considers what to do about complaints from the NFL Network, WealthTV Network and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (which carries Baltimore and Washington Major League Baseball games) that they are being discriminated against by providers including Comcast, Cox, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Mr. Martin said the translator proposal would set up a quick procedure for approving translators used just to assure normal viewers of a station’s analog signal will continue to be able to get the signal after the digital transition.

When Wilmington, N.C., switched to digital in September, in the first test of the digital transition, some distant viewers of one station lost access to the station’s signal.

Mr. Martin said he was hoping to move forward at the meeting with a controversial proposal that would auction off some spectrum for fixed and mobile service, conditional on the buyers using at least 25% of the spectrum to provide free national wireless broadband service. The proposal would require that the service offered include content filtering for those under 18. Mr. Martin defended the filtering and the age limit chosen and said those over 18 could opt out of the filtering.

Mr. Martin also said the FCC is preparing to fine seven media companies or cable providers a total of $11 million for violating digital TV consumer education requirements. He declined to say how many of the complaints were about cable providers not including information in their bills on the DTV transition.