FCC Reveals Dec. 18 Agenda

On Docket: cable unbundling, expediting program access complaints, wireless items.

The FCC has released its Dec. 18 meeting agenda, including a proposal that could have the effect of unbundling cable programming. It remains unclear whether the agenda will remain intact, however, given the fact that two powerful legislators plan to weigh in on that agenda, according to sources.

On the docket for the meeting are the items FCC Chairman Kevin Martin outlined

at a press conference with reporters two weeks ago

, including voting on "a Report and Order modifying the program carriage rules and procedures and a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comment on the practices of programmers and broadcasters."

That item would expedite the FCC's processing of program access complaints (the Report and Order).

Martin also plans to issue a further notice of proposed rulemaking (which is less than an order, more than an inquiry), asking whether the FCC should adopt new rules that prevent programmers, cable, satellite or broadcast, from making being placed on certain channels or reaching a certain threshold of subs a condition of carriage.

That way, he said, it would allow programmers to charge what they wished, but operators could place them in a different tier than expanded basic. He said some operators had suggested to him they would be able to lower cable prices if they had that freedom.

He also said the proposal asked if the same rule should apply to broadcasters who opt to negotiate carriage for their signals.

As it is, broadcasters must provide broadcast stations on the most basic level of service. That directive would still apply to stations that opt for must-carry, he said. It is just an inquiry, Martin said at his press conference, but "it asks should these same rules apply to broadcasters who are electing and wanting to charge consumers as well."

The chairman has been pushing cable to unbundle its service to help lower rates and increase subscriber control over channel choice. He sees the prohibition on tier and placement conditions as being one way of doing that.

The agenda also includes some wireless items, fines for cable and other multichannel video operators for alleged violations of the FCC's DTV education rules and establishing a digital translator service to fill in gaps in DTV TV station coverage.

The sticking point is that, according to sources, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WVA) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), are preparing a letter asking Martin essentially not to take up the carriage item, which is contentious and has drawn criticism from various quarters, and stick to the DTV-related items or other business that has statutory deadlines that require Martin to act before he exits on Jan. 20.

The letter would be a warning shot across the bow from the future heads of the Senate Commerce Committee and House Energy & commerce Committee, which oversee the FCC.

If that winds up being the case, the chairman would likely circulate the agenda to the other commissioners to see what they wanted to do, and could pare it back at any time before the Dec. 18 meeting.