Cable Key to Broadcast Election Coverage

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The NAB says that the best way for the FCC and Congress to boost broadcast public affairs programming and election coverage is to guarantee that cable systems have to carry all of a broadcaster's digital signal, including the planned public affairs programming on some of those extra digital channels.

Not surprisingly, the cable industry disagrees.

That broadcaster pitch came in a letter Friday from NAB President Eddie Fritts to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain and FCC Chairman Michael Powell. At a press conference two weeks ago, McCain and Powell called on the broadcast industry to increase their political coverage, with McCain adding the extra incentive of a revived mandatory airtime law if they didn't do so.

"Since broadcasters have steadily reduced public affairs programming in an analog world, there is absolutely no evidence or reason to believe that they will undertake more political coverage in a digital world," the National Cable & Telecommunications Association responded in a statement.

"In the absence of local broadcast political coverage, dozens of state and local news and public affairs cable networks are now providing comprehensive coverage of political activities. It's curious that the broadcasters are suggesting that multicasting would increase their local public affairs coverage when they have steadfastly fought against having any public service obligations applied to their digital signals."

In the letter, Fritts said broadcasters already do an "outstanding" job of covering campaigns, and argued as NAB frequently has, that "politicians frequently reject the many offers from local radio and television stations" for debates and other non-campaign ad time.

Fritts also enclosed a copy of letter he was sending to the rank and file essentially praising them for what they were already doing, but also encouraging them to "redouble our efforts this election season and ensure that policymakers in Washington are aware that we are dedicated to enhancing America's dialog."

Given the self-congratulatory nature of the rest of the letter, it was unclear whether that was a call to increase offers of on-air time or to increase efforts to educate Washington about what they have already done.

"Since broadcasters have steadily reduced public affairs programming in an analog world, there is absolutely no evidence or reason to believe that they will undertake more political coverage in a digital world.

 In the absence of local broadcast political coverage, dozens of state and local news and public affairs cable networks are now providing comprehensive coverage of political activities.  It's curios that the broadcasters are suggesting that multicasting would increase their local public affairs coverage when they have steadfastly fought against having any public service obligations applied to their digital signals."

A Powell spokesman had not yet seen the letter, and McCain's office had not returned comment.

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