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FCC’s Martin revives multicast debate

March 14th, 2007

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is moving forward his surprising proposal to mandate cable carriage for leased multicast channels:

According to FCC aides and published reports, Martin’s plan calls for allowing TV stations to lease surplus digital-TV spectrum to FCC-approved entities — most likely small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Lessees would have mandatory cable-carriage rights.

While the idea of giving even more cable channels to broadcasters has never made much sense to me, any proposal that would increase the diversity of programming in a meaningful way is worth giving a closer look. We won’t really be able to evaluate Martin’s plan until its details are known, but it certainly sounds better than the more straightforward giveaway to broadcasters he tried to ram through before.

Martin has managed to revive the moribund issue of multicast must-carry with a politically astute move that may appeal to Democratic commissioners. Is it an unlikely strategy for a Bush-appointed FCC commissioner? Perhaps not, given that the ostensibly conservative Bush administration, which has expanded government while presiding over fiscal recklessness, has a record of rewarding political friends at the expense of its professed free-market principles. Those friends, in this instance, would include faith-based groups that have long advocated multicast carriage mandates as a means of protecting or expanding religious programming.

The must-carry regime, I still maintain, is fundamentally broken. If must-carry privileges are extended under the theory of promoting media access, we can expect broadcasters to ultimately demand carriage rights for their own multicast programming as they increasingly face financial peril in years to come.

The FCC’s expansion of low-power television (LPTV) service, beginning in the 1980s, was supposed to promote minority ownership and community programming. (The FCC has never granted blanket must-carry rights to LPTV.) LPTV has never quite lived up to its promise, however, given minimal minority ownership, low viewership and a lack of ownership caps. Home to religious programming, infomercials and even some genuine community-produced programming, LPTV is now an afterthought in the digital TV transition. Its future looks less than promising.

Would prospects for leased multicast channels be any brighter? With cable carriage, perhaps. If Martin’s plan includes strong safeguards to ensure true programming diversity, I might actually favor it. Of course, antenna-equipped viewers who have purchased HDTVs might not appreciate the squeeze on high-definition signals (due to finite bandwidth) that might be necessitated by multicast expansion.

• Link: Multichannel News

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