Martin Tees Up Multicast Must-Carry


Some key issues may finally start moving at the FCC now that it stands to have a full complement of commissioners by next month.

Lacking a fifth commissioner--and third Republican--FCC Chairman Kevin Martin last month reiterated to broadcasters at their national convention that he supported multicast must-carry, but could not yet move on that feeling without five commisioners in place.

The fifth, vacant, seat was filled late Friday with the confirmation of Robert McDowell, a former phone company lobbyist.

Now that he has that fifth, an industry source close to the chairman says Martin could schedule a vote on multicast must-carry as early as next month. McDowell could be in place by the end of the week.

According to an FCC source, Martin is circulating a notice of proposed rulemaking mandating multicast must-carry as well as seeking comment on how to implement the obligation, which would come after the February 2009 switch to digital, and dealing with such issues as signal downconversion--"signal degradation"--and who should bear the cost for set-top boxes, cable operators or subscribers.

One source familiar with the workings of the FCC said that the 2-2 tie at the commission has been a major, bottleneck, and that Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps' statements about the lack of agenda items to consider, including in this week's B&C cover story, may have helped spur the swift action on multicast carriage once the McDowell nomination was confirmed, and could prompt even more movement. "I think you will see a number of things happen," the source said.
Martin had been the lone dissenter in a February 2005 decision reaffirming the FCC's conclusion that Congress had meant to grant broadcasters only mandatory cable carriage of a digital replication of their primary analog signal, not all the programming that could fit on their DTV channel.

Martin had called "a missed opportunity," the failure of must-carry to gain traction in Washington--specifically on a DTV hard date bill and more recently as part of a rewrite of the telecom bill," but had said he did not expect to push a revisit of the issue in his commission until an open seat on the five-member panel was filled.

If Martin does believe he could have three votes for multicast must-carry, the news will be music to the ears of relatively new--since November--National Association of Broadcasters President David Rehr, and a sour note for the cable industry, which already faces a Martin-backed effort promoting a la carte cable.

The two Democrats, who both voted against granting multicast-must carry are still on the commission, while the Republican chairman, Michael Powell, and commisssion, Kathleen Abernathy, have since left.

Religious TV stations, and the Christian Coalition, the latter a strong backer of Martin on the crackdown on indecency, have also been strong in their support of multicasting must-carry, arguing, as the coalition did in an alert to members last fall, that religious stations might not lose out. "Without this 'Multicast/Must-carry' law," hte coalition argued, "the cable and satellite companies could possibly not add new Christian channels."