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Free Political Ads on the Table

Sep 5, 2005  •  Post A Comment

If lawmakers approve legislation requiring cable TV operators to carry all of the free TV signals that broadcasters multicast on their new digital TV channels, broadcasters might be willing to accept an obligation to provide free airtime to political candidates.

That potential swap was being floated last week by the National Association of Broadcasters.

“We’ve indicated everything is on the table,” said Eddie Fritts, NAB president and CEO, during a briefing for reporters.

As part of a last-ditch effort to influence the debate over multicast carriage, NAB also announced that 91 broadcasters will gather Thursday in Washington to personally urge key lawmakers to support multicast carriage legislation.

In addition, a study released by the association last week said that while 85 percent of TV stations are hoping to create new local programming streams on their multicast channels, 80 percent of those stations are unlikely to do so without cable carriage assurances.

Another NAB-sponsored study released last week said that cable operators are unlikely to carry much broadcast multicast programming without being required to do so, because cable operators compete with broadcasters for local advertising dollars and cable companies have financial interests in cable networks that compete with broadcasters for viewers.

“Multicasting is about competition to cable, and that’s why the cable gatekeepers are fighting multicasting so fiercely,” Mr. Fritts said.

Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said in a statement: “NAB’s tired rhetoric doesn’t disguise the fact that broadcasters are asking the government for another handout that the FCC has already twice rejected, would harm diversity in programming and would do nothing to speed the digital TV transition. Instead of asking for another free ride, broadcasters should follow cable’s lead and present a viable plan for ending the digital transition.”

The multicast issue is on the industry’s front burner because lawmakers are expected to approve a major DTV transition bill that could determine the legislative fate of multicast carriage, along with such other major issues as the date for the digital transition, shortly after they return to Washington from their summer recess. Their return was originally scheduled for this week, but some returned late last week, a few days early, to address relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Also last week, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, had yet to unveil DTV legislation in the Senate, and it was unclear whether his bill would include a multicast provision. Draft DTV legislation released in the House earlier this year did not include multicast carriage.

But at his briefing last week, Mr. Fritts said Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, have agreed to lead the charge for a multicast carriage requirement in the Senate.

In addition, Mr. Fritts said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, has made clear that while he opposes a carriage requirement, broadcasters should feel free to lobby other representatives for a House amendment that would require multicast carriage.

“We’re going after [the House votes],” Mr. Fritts said.

He also said he expects the cable industry to try to persuade the courts to kill any multicast must-carry rule.

But in the wake of a major NAB lobbying campaign over the past two months, Mr. Fritts predicted that multicast carriage will become law. “In my view, multicasting will be a way of life,” he said.

Lobbying over multicast carriage and other issues related to the DTV conversion is expected to heat up dramatically this week because lawmakers have made clear that they want to approve bills on the issue by Sept. 16.