Cablevision's New Year's plans include taking on must-carry
in the Supreme Court, if it can convince the court to take the case.
A Cablevision spokesperson confirms that the cable operator
plans next month to petition the High Court to hear its appeal of the Second
Circuit's upholding of the FCC's must-carry mandate for station WRNN.
The company is taking aim at the entire must-carry regime
armed with the decision by the D.C. Circuit earlier in Comcast v. FCC this year,
which threw out the 30% cap on one cable operator's sub count. It plans to
argue that the lack of robust competition and presence of a cable bottleneck no
longer exist, and were the underpinnings of the Supreme Court's close decisions
to uphold the rules in two earlier challenges by Turner.
Cablevision got a Dec. 9 stay of the Second Circuit's
mandate for WRNN carriage pending the outcome of the company's request for a
Supreme Court hearing. A source says the company was planning to challenge the
WRNN decision with or without the Comcast decision, given the rise in competition
in the marketplace, but that the D.C. decision just provided more ammo.
panel of the Second Circuit back in June rejected Cablevision's challenge
to an FCC order requiring carriage of WRNN New York in some Long
Island communities under the market-modification provisions of
must-carry. The full court in October rejected Cablevision's petition for a
re-hearing before the full court.
In the process, the court took an expansive view of the
benefits of the must-carry rule, citing the Supreme Court's Turner decision and
concluding that it did not mean to limit must-carry to the minimum of
replicating a DMA.
Cablevision counters that the Second Circuit decision
conflicts with the 1994 Turner I and II decisions narrowly upholding
must-carry, as well as the D.C. Circuit's conclusion in the cable-cap case that
"now that cable operators are subject to robust competition, the FCC can
no longer identify the 'sufficient' basis" demanded by the Supreme Court in
Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622 (1994) ('Turner I'), for
imposing upon cable operators 'special obligations' like must carry."
A split in federal appeals court decisions is one of the
tests for the Supreme Court's decision to hear an appeal, as are cases that
implicate the First Amendment, which Cablevision argues this does.
Cablevision concedes that the Second Circuit never responded
directly to its assertion--both in the original appeal and the request for
rehearing--that compelled carriage in the presence of robust competition
violates the First Amendment. But it reads that as the "apparent
conclusion" that the presence of robust competition is
"irrelevant" to analysis under Turner.
Cablevision says that is "fundamentally at odds with
the D.C. Circuits' decision." In striking down another type of FCC
regulation of cable operators, the D.C. Circuit there determined that "[c]able
operators . . . no longer have the bottleneck power over programming that concerned
the Congress in 1992," said the company.
That continued bottleneck is central to earlier Supreme
Court decisions--Turner I and II--upholding must carry, but the company points
out other changes since the Turner cases, including the decreasing number of
over-the-air viewers must-carry targets (down from about 40% to less than 15%) and
that it is much easier to switch between off-air and cable programming than a
decade ago (Turner I was in 1997).
The Second Circuit must think Cablevision has a shot at
winning. According to a summary by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the judicial
standard for a stay pending a cert petition (the official term for seeking
Supreme Court review), there must be "a reasonable probability that four
justices will consider the issue sufficiently meritorious to grant cert; 2) a
fair prospect that the majority of the court will conclude that the decision
was erroneous; 3) a likelihood that irreparable harm will result from the
Cablevision argued that if it had to carry WRNN, it would
have to make room for it by dropping Syfy or C-SPAN for a channel that it said
its viewers didn't want.