Broadcasters better not mail invitations for their must-carry victory party just yet. FCC and industry sources last week told BROADCASTING & CABLE that plans to give TV stations broader cable-carriage rights for digital channels have hit serious snags.
The upshot: Commission support for handing broadcasters the right to demand carriage of their multiple digital channels is much less certain than it once appeared. "I just think it's pretty fluid right now," said Chairman Michael Powell.
The commission has been expected to declare next month that broadcasters are entitled to demand cable carriage of any of the six channels that digital technology allows them to offer, as long as they are offered free over the air.
That outcome has been cast into doubt by Powell's recent decision to put the News Corp./DirecTV merger at the top of his agenda and by commission Democrats' demand that broadcasters face new public-interest obligations in return for multicast rights.
It's certain that digital cable carriage won't be tackled at the FCC's December meeting. Worse for broadcasters, the dispute over public-interest obligations threatens to break apart what had been a gelling consensus for multicast carriage rights.
A month ago, broadcast lobbyists were confident the commission would give them the right to demand multicast carriage, but cable operators jetted in heads of state-based cable news nets to lobby against giving more of their capacity to TV stations.
Powell told reporters last week he still believes the 1991 law requiring cable systems to carry all local TV stations obligates them to carry no more than a single channel, although he's listening to "fresh arguments" from other commissioners.
He is troubled because the law requires systems to carry a station's "primary" video signal. Now that stations can cram up to six channels into the same 6 MHz of space, designating one as "primary" could be as meaningless as picking a cable system's primary network.
Republican Kevin Martin has been the strongest advocate for multicast rights, and Kathleen Abernathy has been leaning that way, sometimes challenging Powell to view the statute less rigidly.
But Democrats are now balking at giving broadcasters new carriage rights without getting something in return. Copps told reporters two weeks ago the FCC should dust off public-interest obligations proposed in 2000 and either decide whether any new obligations apply or, at least, commit to a quick decision.
As for the commission's newfound hesitancy to grant multicast carriage rights, broadcast lobbyists chalk it up to commissioners' customary reluctance to commit to a position before they get Media Bureau's recommendation.
Cable executives counter that their arguments are gaining traction. "We don't think broadcasters should be entitled to carriage" of niche channels likely to compete with established cable nets, said Decker Anstrom, president of Landmark Communications, owner of the Weather Channel. "Broadcasters having good relations with their cable companies will be able to get carriage."