Barton, Upton Hear It From Religious Broadcasters


Religious broadcasters, allied as the Religious Voices in Broadcasting, have written House Energy & Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) and Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) asking them to rethink their opposition to a move by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to grant broadcasters digital multicast must-carry.

Saying "not one religious broadcaster has been able to secure carriage of any multistream channels," the broadcasters also asked for a meeting with them "in the near future" about what they said was their single biggest legislative issue

Saying it is "rare" for them to ask for support on a technical issue, the broadcasters took the legislators to task for not giving religious broadcasters' views "the consideration that we feel they deserve."

The religious station owners argue that requiring cable to carry all of a station's digital channels, rather than a single duplicate of their primary analog channel--as the FCC earlier concluded was its mandate from Congress--is "the single most important factor in making the digital transition a success."

Looking to add a little carrot to the stick of their disappointment, the groups told Barton and Upton that if mulitcast must-carry is granted, "we will strongly encourage our viewers to privately invest in set-top boxes."

If they do so, then the government will have to spend less on subsidizing converters. That cost was a big issue with House and Senate Republicans during the debate on digital transition legislation.

But the religoius broadcasters know how to get a message across. They did not leave that conclusion for the congressional leaders to draw themselves. "[I]f multicast must-carry is enacted, " they wrote, "there will be less disruption when the transition takes place and the subsidy required to ensure a smooth transition will be substantially reduced." Ka-ching!

They took the opportunity to pitch


la carte, saying that if the legislators were concerned about marketplace solutions, that was the most marketplace-friendly of them all.
Religious broadcasters have been of two minds on the issue of multicasting--and à  la carte, for that matter--divided primarily by how they deliver their service. Broadcasters want to make sure their extra services are carried, while, as a general rule, religious cable networks fear multicast must-carry requirements could mean their channels would get bumped to make room for all those extra channels.

The Religious Voices in Broadcasting comprise more than a dozen stations and several religious broadcast networks.

Kevin Martin two weeks ago asked commissioners to vote on his proposal to grant multicast must-carry, but that vote is not expected until at least June 21, the next open meeting, if then.

When Barton and Upton heard of the plan, they wrote Martin expressing their opposition and characterizing it as usurping congressional authority.

Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee that also oversees the FCC, has said he thinks the policy reversal on multicast must-carry would be within the FCC's authority, but also thinks Congress must ultimately clarify must-carry so it will not be subject to further reinterpretions by administrative order.

The letter is printed in full below:

The Honorable Joe Barton                                      The Honorable Fred Upton
U.S. House of Representatives                           U.S. House of Representatives
2109 Rayburn House Office Building                 2183 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515                                      Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Chairman Barton and Congressman Upton: 

We cannot strongly enough express our disappointment in your recent letter to the Federal Communications Commission opposing multicast must-carry.  Religious broadcasters are, by definition, smaller and independent and not affiliated with major media conglomerates by design, so that we can maintain our editorial independence.  We have witnessed directly the concessions that must be made when entities such as ours are acquired by large multimedia corporations.  The companies represented in this letter will do everything we can to preserve our integrity and mission by refusing to compromise the programming we provide. 

Therefore, while it is rare that we have come to you and asked for support on any technical issue, we are asking you to take a second look at multicast and its implications to our stations and as well as other small and independent broadcasters. 

You reference in your letter that consumer preferences and market forces should determine what channels are carried by cable operators.  However, cable engages in many practices that are inconsistent with the market-oriented philosophy you espouse. 
For instance, the most free market approach to television programming is à  la carte, but cable opposes this practice based in large part upon their own non-consumer friendly preference of bundling channels.  For example, it is impossible to order ESPN individually without also receiving the other 5 or 6 ESPN owned channels and the substantial bill that accompanies them. 
Additionally, it seems that market forces, as they relate to multicast must-carry, apply differently to large broadcasters than they do to small and religious broadcasters.  Cable has struck deals with most of the major networks to carry all of their multicast channels sight-unseen.  However, not one religious broadcaster has been able to secure carriage of any multistream channels. 

You also state that “forcing carriage of additional broadcast streams would only reduce the amount of capacity available for non-broadcast programming.”  This seems to dismiss the fact that even if cable carries all of the broadcasters multistreams of programming, they will do so using half of the capacity that cable has allocated for broadcasters since 1992. 

During the 1992 cable debate, Congress thoroughly researched and evaluated a reasonable formula for broadcast carriage on cable systems.  It studied the number of existing and potential future broadcast and cable channels and available spectrum for build-outs.  
Instead of establishing a strict numerical limit that was unforgiving as both cable and broadcast technology evolved, Congress established a policy in which cable would carry all broadcast stations in a market up to one third of the cable operator’s channel capacity. 
At that time, the average cable system had 100 channels.  This ratio served both industries well, allowing cable to become very profitable and smaller broadcasters to develop a sustainable business model.  In a digital world, should our voices be diluted so substantially that all of our competitors, both large broadcast stations on the local level and horizontally and vertically integrated national cable channels, overwhelm our ability to be viable, many of our stations will cease to exist. 

Lastly, it is our strong belief that multicast must-carry will be the single most important factor in making the digital transition a success.  A disproportionate number of elderly and lower income viewers watch over-the-air television at a rate that is higher than those who receive their television signals through cable and satellite.  We are proud that many of our viewers trust our stations to provide them with guidance and support in many areas of their lives. 
Should a multicast must-carry mandate go into effect, we will strongly encourage our viewers to privately invest in set top boxes and/or digital television sets in order to receive our new multiple channels, and they will do so.  These viewers simply WILL NOT invest in new technology only to receive their same programming choices, even if they come across in a high definition form.  Therefore, if multicast must-carry is enacted, there will be less disruption when the transition takes place and the subsidy required to ensure a smooth transition will be substantially reduced.

In closing, once again, we are disappointed that our views have not received the consideration that we feel they deserve and it is our hope that you would meet with us in the near future to discuss this issue which is the single most important legislative issue to religious broadcasters.  Thank you for your time and consideration.