The Digital Protestants

Broadcast group breaks with National Religious Broadcasters on carriage issues

Religious Voices in Broadcasting, a sort of splinter group of the National Religious Broadcasters, has sent a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee demanding that digital multicast must-carry be part of any upcoming digital TV legislation.

The group, which includes TBN, the Christian Television Network and more than a dozen other stations and groups, says that their current carriage on cable systems is viable only thanks to the 1992 Must Carry Act, which mandated cable carriage of analog TV stations.

Calling the digital conversion an unfunded mandate for expensive dual analog/digital carriage that has “disproportionately affected religious broadcasters,” the group says that mandated digital carriage of broadcast stations is the “fair and reasonable solution for maintaining a level playing field for small, independent and religious broadcasters in digital television.”

The NRB is divided on the multicasting issue: Broadcast members are generally supportive while cable members are opposed out of concern that broadcast stations will bump them if digital must-carry becomes the law of the land. The 200 or so programming members, meanwhile, break depending on whether they supply cable channels or broadcast stations.

Though they claim to support a free market, the broadcasters say that, without the negotiating power of a large media conglomerate behind them, they won’t be able to negotiate carriage, “regardless of the compelling nature of our programming or consumer demand.”

Like other small broadcasters that enjoy the security of bundled cable packages, those in Religious Voices reject à la carte pricing, which could leave them in the cold if viewers are allowed to customize their channel selection.

But that didn’t stop the group from invoking à la carte to its advantage when it accused cable operators of inconsistency: “We find it somewhat disingenuous that cable would promote a strict interpretation of 'free-market’ practices for multicast must-carry while arguing against the free market as it relates to à la carte.”