Paxson vs. Laybourne


I must respond to the Feb. 9 guest commentary of Geraldine Laybourne ("FCC's Pending Digital Folly," page 42) addressing the issue of digital must-carry. By continuing to oppose full digital multicast and must-carry, independent cable programmers like Oxygen Media are joining the major cable and satellite operators in ignoring the law and attempting to thwart the greatest expansion of free over-the-air television service since TV's inception. And in the process they are missing the greatest opportunity to create new networks, new programming opportunities, and new channels.

The FCC finally seems to be seeing through the cable industry's smokescreen warnings about dropped cable channels and decreased viewer choice. In reality, full digital must-carry can be achieved without forcing operators to drop a single cable programming service. Cable capacity expansions and digital compression technology have progressed to a point where the transition to DTV will result in a decrease in the amount of cable bandwidth occupied by broadcasters.

MSOs are not likely to use this bandwidth windfall to add basic-cable channels. Instead, they will likely just salt the bandwidth away—maybe add five more channels of pay-per-view hard-core pornography or another repetitive PPV movie channel—and continue complaining about the onerous burdens of must-carry. All the while, they claim high program costs and inflict double-digit rate hikes on subscribers.

But Congress and the Supreme Court have shown that they are immune to the cable industry's cries. The 1992 Cable Act requires cable operators to carry all free over-the-air broadcast program content. Multicast must-carry is the only way to comply with the law in the DTV world, and it is the FCC's responsibility to require it without further delay.

The opposition of Laybourne and her cable programming cohorts to must-carry, however, is most strange, because they seem to be ignoring a golden opportunity.

The success of any programmer depends on the number of households it can reach, but cable and satellite operators long ago slowed down the addition of new channels to their basic lineup. Consequently, I have long expected independent programmers to welcome DTV multicasting as a new distribution platform that would provide them with the ability to reach all television viewers.

So when Laybourne frets about future distribution of programming networks like Oxygen, her questions really ought to be addressed to cable operators who apparently would rather carry multiple channels of pay-per-porn than add quality programming that would be available to all their subscribers. It's a sad day for television when programming featuring surgically altered naked women has a better chance at gaining coverage on local cable systems than programming like Oxygen's.

Lowell Paxson, chairman and CEO, Paxson Communications