Martin Floats Either/Or Must Carry

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To encourage greater viewership of digital TV channels, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wants to give TV stations the right to choose whether local cable systems carry their old analog channels or their new digital ones. Martin wants his fellow commissioners to impose the rule at the commission's July 14 meeting.

Currently, stations are permitted to demand carriage only for their analog channels. Martin argues that the TV business needs to begin migrating from the old channels in order to accelerate consumer adoption of digital programming.

To speed the switch, the current policy of applying cable must-carry rights only to analog channels must be changed, he is telling his fellow commissioners.

Martin's proposal, dubbed "either/or," is supported by broadcasters, who have been fighting for expanded digital carriage rights since 1997.

The cable industry is opposed, arguing that the idea is a back-door way to mandate dual carriage obligations on the pay-TV industry.

Cable argues that stations will demand carriage of their digital signals and cable operators will have no choice other than to carry the analog version, too, because most viewers still aren't equipped to see digital channels and will demand that analog versions continue.

Martin, however, insists that his plan would not impose dual carriage at all. He notes that the most popular TV stations, affiliates of the networks, don't rely on must-carry. Instead, they negotiate carriage contracts that frequently include carriage of analog and digital channels. The only stations likely to invoke "either/or" must-carry, he says, are weaker channels that cable operators often say don't have significant viewership and few subscribers care about.

It's unclear whether Martin can win the three votes needed to win approval for the idea (there are currently only four members, two Republicans and two Democrats), especially from FCC Democrats who have been reluctant to give stations new carriage rights without accompanying public interest obligations, such as quotas for local news or political campaign coverage.

But one FCC aide said the Democrats might OK Martin's idea because it pushes the DTV transition along without giving broadcasters much benefit.One person hoping that wasn't the case was Jeff Chester of media activist group Center for Digital Democracy, "Chairman Martin appears to be channeling the spirit of his  predecessor, Michael Powell," he said. "It appears he is rushing to help out  the interests of the biggest media conglomerates over the average 
American."

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