Martin pushes must-carry up Hill

FCC chief stresses 'meaningful benefit' of more choices

The nation's top TV regulator told lawmakers Wednesday that the best way for the government to ensure a successful transition to digital TV is to require cable operators to carry all the channels a broadcaster offers after analog transmission ceases in 2009.

A "multicast must-carry" regime for digital TV would turn a negative use-it-or-lose-it campaign by government and industry into a positive, FCC chairman Kevin Martin told the House Energy and Commerce Committee's telecommunications panel.

"The message that we have been sending is simply not appealing — 'You need to buy a new box or you'll lose TV altogether,' " Martin testified. "But what if instead the message to consumers was, 'If you get a new digital television or a converter box, you will be able to watch a wide array of new free programming'? Then what was a burden for consumers becomes a meaningful benefit."

Doing that would require the Congress or the FCC to expressly order the cable companies to carry all of a broadcaster's digital offerings. While analog television transmissions like the ones Americans have used for more than half a century can support only one programming stream, digital TV transmissions allow broadcasters to air one or two high-definition channels and the transmission of a half-dozen standard-definition channels.

Martin has long pushed for the multicast must-carry rule but has been unable to get traction for the idea in his agency. He said Wednesday that the time has come to revisit the issue.

"The only way we can make this a reality, however, is if the cable companies are required to carry these additional channels," he said. "And, as is the case today, cable operators should be required to carry this free programming."

In the 1992 Cable Act, Congress required cable operators to either negotiate for consent to retransmit a broadcaster's signal or carry it on their networks, depending on the broadcaster's choice. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the retransmission consent must-carry law.

The 800 or so affiliates of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox generally elect retransmission consent as they have the power to cut a deal with the big cable outfits.

Independent stations, TV stations owned by smaller broadcast companies and stations that broadcast in a language other than English generally demand to be carried.

Cable operators contend that the law only applies to the channel that most resembles broadcasters' analog offering, and the FCC in 2005 rejected broadcasters' attempts to get the agency to invoke a multicast must-carry rule. Martin, a commissioner at the time, was the lone dissenting vote.

Cable companies contend that a multicast must-carry regulation would crowd out cable-generated programing. In a letter sent Tuesday to the Senate Commerce Committee, TV One president and CEO Jonathan Rodgers and SiTV CEO Michael Schwimmer said networks such as theirs would be unfairly disadvantaged by a rule like the one Martin envisions.

"The new opportunities for programming in the digital era will only be available if the federal government doesn't seek to crowd out channel space by giving broadcasters an additional government-granted competitive advantage over all other programmers," they wrote.

Democrats on the panel want broadcasters to commit to specific public-interest programming before they will vote for the rule while some of the panel's Republicans find a multicast must-carry rule too intrusive.

Martin's call came amid congressional examinations of efforts to inform the public that their analog TV sets will quit working in 2009 when they begin airing programming only in the digital format.
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