Court delays must-carry enforcement in S.F. area

A California court has handed Viacom Intl. and the cable industry a victory by barring the FCC from enforcing new must-carry rules for 30 days on Viacom’s cable systems in the San Francisco Bay area.

Cable operators have filed numerous unsuccessful legal challenges to both the must-carry regs and their companion “retransmission consent” rules in recent months. In a decision late Tuesday, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted Viacom’s request for a temporary restraining order blocking the FCC from immediately forcing its Bay Area cable systems to comply with must-carry.

Must-carry rules that took effect nationally Wednesday require cable operators to set aside at least a third of channel capacity for local TV stations. The must-carry mandates came from the FCC, which took its marching orders from lingo added to the cable reregulation bill passed by Congress last year.

Stations axed

The court decision, written by Judge Eugene Lynch, means as many as four TV stations in the Bay Area won’t win immediate carriage on the Viacom cable systems in San Francisco and surrounding suburbs. The stations “don’t have much of a viewer following,” according to Viacom attorney George Shapiro.

In his opinion, Judge Lynch wrote, “There is simply no denying that Viacom’s suit raises serious First Amendment questions.”

Lynch also ruled that oral arguments will be held June 28 on Viacom’s bid for a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the FCC rules.

Win one, lose one

Ironically, while Viacom was scoring its win in Northern California, cable multisystem operator Times Mirror was losing its bid for a similar temporary restraining order in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles.

Last week, Times Mirror had asked the court to block implementation of must-carry on its Dimension Cable Services system in central Orange County. Judge Manuel Real denied the request, but he scheduled a June 21 hearing in which both Times Mirror and local broadcast attorneys can plead their cases.

As a result of Judge Real’s decision, Dimension Cable on Wednesday dropped several cable networks to make way for carriage of local TV stations. Nixed were the Movie Channel, Continuous Hits and a pay-per-view service.