FCC Conflicted Over Digital Carriage

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The digital divide was in evidence in Las Vegas Tuesday, and that was just among the Federal Communications Commission members who must try to help bridge it.

Sorting out public interest obligations and must-carry privileges for broadcasters in the digital age is a "chicken and egg" question, says FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy.

Public interest obligations "are very different if [broadcasters] get must-carry rights," Abernathy told a gathering of NAB attendees Tuesday. "It’s hard to separate the two issues."

Broadcasters believe cable should have to carry its full digital signal, no matter how they subdivide it. Cable counters that it should only have to carry the primary digital signal, and that to have to carry several channels from each station would eat up capacity, push off niche cable nets they might prefer to carry and mess up the cable economic model.

Or, to borrow the egg analogy, broadcasters want the FCC to require cable's basket to carry all their eggs, while cable says that would be tantamount to poaching its channel capacity and editorial control.

Commissioner Kevin Martin said "the most important thing" that the FCC can do to help complete the transition to digital is clarify the must-carry issue. The NAB crowd certainly agrees. NAB Chairman Eddie Fritts called on the commission in no uncertain terms to make that decision as soon as possible.

If Abernathy is correct, then clarity on public interest is equally as important as clarity on must carry. And the commissioners so far can’t seem to agree on what the new public interest standard, if any, should be in the digital world.

Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein reiterated their stand for specific, quantifiable obligations, echoing their support earlier in the day of a coalition of activist groups seeking such standards.

At that press conference outside the Las Vegas Convention Center site of the NAB annual convention, the two endorsed the proposal of a coalition of public interest groups, including Common Cause and The Alliance for Better Campaigns, that would require broadcasters to program a minimum of three hours a week of public interest programming on a station’s primary channel, as well as program at least a quarter of its primary channel’s prime time with independently produced shows.

Martin has problems with that.

He said broadcasters are "as involved in their local communities as any industry I’ve seen." He is "very hesitant to quantify the public interest obligations because "a floor often becomes a ceiling," that curtails community service.

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