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FCC to seek input on cable carriage

Sep 2, 2002  •  Post A Comment

In a setback for broadcasters, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to announce Sept. 12 that it will seek a new round of comment before deciding whether to require cable operators who carry broadcast digital TV signals to carry all the free programming offered over the channel.
As it stands, the FCC’s rules require cable operators to carry only the station’s primary video signal, which consists of the main free broadcast signal and related programming content.
Broadcasters have been urging the FCC to expand the obligation to require carriage of all free programming they offer. That means that if they multiplex on their DTV channels, divvying up their DTV frequencies into multiple programming streams, cable operators could be required to carry up to six channels for each of the broadcasters they carry.
Broadcasters also have been urging the FCC to adopt a final regulation now to help pave the way for the transition to DTV technology.
But sources said FCC officials want to first seek a fresh round of comment from the public on whether the expanded carriage obligation raises constitutional concerns-a possibility that could postpone resolution of the issue indefinitely.
Sources also said that if two of the agency’s commissioners-Democrat Michael Copps and Republican Kevin Martin-had their way, the agency would adopt a final rule now.
The new comments cycle is a compromise intended to comfort the agency’s two other GOP commissioners-Chairman Michael Powell and Kathleen Abernathy.
Of these two, Mr. Powell appeared to have the bigger doubts about the wisdom of expanding cable’s DTV carriage obligations. Ms. Abernathy was said to be somewhere between Mr. Powell and the other commissioners.
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the National Association of Broadcasters declined comment on the issue.
But broadcast industry sources said there has already been ample opportunity for all interested parties to comment on the so-called “total carriage” concept, which has been the subject of debate for over a year.
“If you want the transition to move forward, you do the rule now, period,”said David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television.
In a filing at the FCC, ABC owner The Walt Disney Co.-the only major TV network that has been lobbying on the issue-said that if the commission sticks to its current rule, “The ability of broadcasters to succeed in the digital era by developing and providing multicast programming will be seriously jeopardized.”
Sources said the other major networks-NBC, Fox and CBS-have stayed out of the regulatory debate in part because they believe they’re powerful enough to negotiate carriage deals with cable operators without relying on specific carriage regulations.