Without mandatory access, goes the familiar warning, the information pipeline will be controlled by a handful of media companies. Marketplace forces are not sufficient given that lopsided power structure, which threatens an essential diversity of voices.
That may sound like a media activist's filing in the Brand X internet access case. It is instead Robert Decherd, chairman of broadcast group/newspaper publisher Belo, arguing for government-mandated carriage of all of a broadcasters' digital channels, rather than simply the digital replication of its primary analog signal.
Dechard's new warning, in a policy statement sent to the FCC and reporters, comes on the heels of his letters to Congress asking for a delay in the FCC's expected Feb. 10 decision to deny digital multicast must-carry (a decision it has already tentatively made).
Belo has been a pioneering company in DTV, boasting the first commercial digital station in WFAA-TV Dallas/Fort Worth back in 1998. Decherd sites the $90 million the company has invested in converting its stations to digital, an investment that could be threatened if new digital services are limited to the 15% of viewers who get their TV from local over-the-air broadcasts.
Decherd says that "without full digital must carry...the government sets in motion an information delivery infrastructure that will be controlled by just seven companies" (the top five cable MSO's, plus EchoStar and DirecTV).
Decherd concedes that cable, not broadcasting, is now the delivery mechanism of choice for TV channels. "Given that 85% of Americans subscribe to one of these services and receive their broadcast signals directly through them, the cable and satellite companies operate as the gatekeepers between the local braodcasters and the local communities they serve."
Decherd says those who believe that broadcasters like Belo are well positioned to negotiate multicast carriage with cable and satellite operators for themselves are "dead wrong."
He argues that Cable operators have the monopoly muscle to dictate their own terms. Broadcast networks are in a better position, he says, because they can leverage their cable nets to get carriage for their owned stations, but not so for owners like Belo.
Decherd argues that multicast channels and the new sources of news and information they provide are an important reality check in a world where news bombards viewers at the speed of light, and often with few editorial filters.
"Local broadcasters and newspapers provide an invaluable service to their communities by distilling this information in a manner that is usable and understandable," Decherd says, a service that could be lost without the government's help in maintaining a "vibrant local media."
Belo owns 19 TV stations, four daily newspapers, two cable news channels, and operates 30 Web sites.