The FCC Wednesday postponed today’s scheduled vote on whether home shopping TV stations are entitled to assured carriage on cable systems.

The delay was requested by Commissioner Ervin Duggan, who said the FCC needs more time to study whether shopping stations are indeed serving the public interest and therefore worthy of special “must-carry” protection granted to most local TV stations.

Duggan’s action focuses attention on whether round-the-clock shopping channels that hawk jewelry and clothing are fulfilling the public service obligations required of all other TV stations.

While conceding that home shopping stations do offer certain benefits to consumers, Duggan nevertheless asked: “Has our concept of the public interest become so denatured — so attenuated — that virtually anything goes?”

Complicating the issue is the fact that in a number of markets nationwide, cable operators are being forced to reject carriage of popular cable networks to comply with must-carry rules passed by Congress. Requiring carriage of shopping channels “could bump CNN and C-Span” from cable systems, warns Peggy Laramie, a spokeswoman for the National Cable Television Assn.

Duggan pulled the item from the FCC agenda after a discussion with interim FCC chairman James Quello. Quello said Wednesday that he would have pulled the item had Duggan not done so because the issue has become so controversial in recent days.

Indeed, influential House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) sent a letter this week urging the FCC to reject must-carry protection for shopping channels. “I have long held that permitting this use of scarce radio spectrum makes a mockery of the public interest responsibilities that are embodied in the Communications Act,” wrote Dingell.

Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) and a handful of other lawmakers were also preparing to send a missive to the FCC urging the agency to reject must carry for shopping channels.

Issue of whether shopping channels deserve must-carry protection first surfaced during the cable reregulation battle in Congress last year. Included in the legislation was a provision requiring cablers to set aside a third of their channels for local broadcast stations.

After contentious debate on whether shopping channels should be included among the stations that merit carriage, lawmakers ordered the FCC to decide the matter by July 2.

This week, reports circulated that the three-member FCC was preparing to side with the shopping channels. It’s believed the vote would have been 2-1, with Quello and commissioner Andrew Barrett in the majority and Duggan dissenting.

Now that the vote’s been delayed, few are predicting the outcome. “There are pros and cons on both sides,” said Quello. “It’s a tough putt.”