Broadcasters Try End-Run on Must-Carry

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Broadcasters could soon be requried to air specific amounts of local programming and political coverage.

House Commerce Committee members are debating whether digital TV legislation to be introduced within two weeks should impose defined “public interest” obligations on TV stations in the DTV era.

The National Association of Broadcasters, the industry’s largest trade group, has repeatedly opposed attempts to further quantify public interest obligations. But B&C has learned that a handful of station groups are pushing for a small set of public interest obligations in the legislation.

That's because the maverick broadcasters are willing to trade a narrow slate of obligations in return for winning TV broadcasters’ top priority in Washington—expanded cable carriage rights for digital programming.

These broadcasters fear that the legislation being drafted by House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, will contain only bad news for their industry. The primary purpose of the bill is to set a firm deadline for cutting off traditional analog broadcasts years earlier than current law requires, perhaps as soon as Dec. 31, 2006.

Two months ago, the FCC rejected broadcasters’ request for digital must-carry rights that would have entitled them to demand that cable operations carry the five or six programming streams that going digital allows them to offer. NAB asked the FCC to reconsider that decision last week.

Under FCC rules, digital stations are entitled to free carriage of only one “primary” digital signal. Broadcasters lost a good chance at new carriage rights at that time because they were not willing to make additional public interest obligations part of the package, which would likely have won the support of FCC Democrats.

Media Access Project President Andrew Schwartzman said the NAB has been foolish to oppose public interest obligations at a time when new wireless video services are coming online and threatening their business.

Unless stations provide programming the government has clearly defined as a public service, officials may one day eliminate preferential interference protections on broadcasters' territory, the most valuable slice of communications frequencies.

 “I think the NAB has made a serious tactical error. It has hurt broadcasters’ position in Washington and their bottom line.”

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