Digital bottleneck

FCC commish urges must-carry resolution

WASHINGTON — If it were solely up to FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin, the agency would have decided long ago to force cablers to carry multiple signals from nets and other broadcasters in the digital future.

But Martin’s colleagues at the FCC are divided over the hot-button ruling known as “digital must-carry” or “multi-casting” and agency topper Michael Powell is dragging his feet.

In a conference call with reporters and media investors Friday, Martin urged fellow commissioners to wrap up work, noting that “there is some discussion” the agency could rule on the issue by the spring even though Powell has yet to commit to a timetable.

“I do think that a key component to the digital transition is for the commission to go ahead and resolve the issues as to what kind of signals get carried and which don’t,” Martin said.

Many observers believe Martin as well as GOP colleague Kathleen Abernathy have for some time been in favor of a digital must-carry rule, although their public comments have been hedged. Powell has publicly expressed reservations about imposing the must-carry rule on constitutional and legal grounds.

But the timing Martin referred to –that the ruling could come just in time for the beginning of beach weather — is much later than many industry observers had previously expected.

The issue has been bumping around the FCC for nearly two years, and at the beginning of December officials initially discussed wrapping up work by the end of 2003. In the past several weeks the issue has been heating up with cablers and the big four nets and other broadcasters facing off in several FCC filings.

Cablers complain the mandate would be an additional burden and broadcasters contend it would provide another programming and revenue stream to keep free, over-the-air TV alive and kicking.

‘Final lynchpin’

When the year passed with no ruling, observers predicted it could take a couple of months for the FCC to resolve internal differences and wrap up its work — but Martin’s prediction of a spring deadline shifts the timetable once again.

“There seems to be a bottleneck and it’s the final lynchpin in the digital transition, so I think we need to get it done soon,” Martin added.

If Martin’s predictions play out as anticipated, the must-carry ruling could give the FCC a double whammy –hitting right before a Philadelphia appeals court rules on the FCC’s controversial media ownership rules.

In early June, the agency loosened restrictions on how many TV and radio stations one company can own and set off a firestorm of protest from the public and Congress, which made several attempts to roll back a key part of the law. Congress is set to weigh in when it returns from its winter recess, Jan. 20, and FCC critics in the Senate have spent their time away plotting strategy.

Shut out Dems fuming

Tempers flared early last month before Congress adjourned for the year when Republicans left Democrats out of negotiations with the White House over media ownership and other language that was added to a must-pass spending bill.

The legislation requires action early this year, but Democrats are still fuming over the deal GOP leaders cut with the White House without their input. Those negotiations would prevent Viacom and News Corp from being forced to sell off any media holdings.

The holidays and a couple of weeks away from Washington have not softened the resolve of Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), one of the most ardent FCC critics in Congress.

“There will be some fall out, somewhere, sometime,” Dorgan spokesman Barry Piatt vowed. “These few weeks (away) have just made (Dorgan) more determined to keep pushing on this.”

FCC commissioners are also bracing for court action on the media ownership rules. A Philly court stayed the new regs last year and will begin hearing oral arguments in the case Feb. 11. Martin said it is difficult to predict how the court will view their decision to relax the media ownership rules but left open the possibility that the FCC could decide to appeal any decision all the way to the Supreme Court.

If the court rejects the majority’s legal arguments for the rules and the appeals fail, FCC commissioners will be forced to go back to the drawing board.

“Bigger changes are bigger challenges,” Martin offered. “Our first priority will be defending the decisions that we made.”

Martin also said he anticipates the court would issue a ruling on media ownership by this summer.

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