Cable Firms OK Pact on Local Broadcasts
After months of negotiations, the nation’s broadcast and cable television industries announced agreement Thursday on a plan under which cable operators would be required to carry some locally broadcast television stations.
The compromise, which requires approval by the Federal Communications Commission, calls for larger cable systems to carry more non-cable channels than would be required of smaller systems.
“It’s a livable deal,” said James P. Mooney, president of the National Cable Television Assn., “because it won’t require cable systems to carry anything we wouldn’t want to carry anyway.”
Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, expressed equal satisfaction. “Today’s agreement is a strong commitment to the future of local broadcasting in this country,” he said.
FCC Rules Overturned
The controversy over which over-the-air TV stations cable operators should be required to carry grew heated last July, when a federal appeals court overturned longstanding FCC rules that required cable systems to carry all major local broadcast channels.
The three-judge panel held that the “must carry” rules, imposed by the FCC in the mid-1960s to protect local broadcasters as the cable television industry expanded, violated the First Amendment by interfering with the editorial discretion of cable operators to select the programming that they transmit to their subscribers.
The court’s ruling was hailed by the cable industry as a victory but was criticized by the National Assn. of Broadcasters as a blow to the nation’s localized system of broadcasting. Vowing to fight the ruling in court and in Congress, the broadcasters argued that cable operators would not carry broadcast programming for free if they could collect fees for carrying other programs.
Letter to Cable Industry
The court left the FCC the option of considering new must-carry rules, and the commission has set a March 4 deadline for comments. The new cable-broadcasting agreement reflects the forthcoming comments of those two industries.
In a letter to the cable industry released Thursday, the broadcasters wrote: “Must-carry is necessary to protect the public interest.” They added that the compromise also would assure that a “reasonable” amount of free television is available to the public.
The letter was signed by Fritts, Preston Padden, who is president of the Assn. of Independent Television Stations, and Margita E. White, coordinator of the Television Operators Caucus.
Padden said in an interview that the agreement “assures local carriage for the vast majority of our stations.” He noted, however, that the groups still must convince the FCC that the agreement is in the public interest. The agreement exempts cable systems with 20 or fewer channels, and industry sources say this would affect 5% to 7% of the nation’s estimated 40 million cable subscribers.
Cable systems with 21 to 26 channels in use would be required to carry no more than seven local stations; if more than seven stations are available, cable operators would be able to choose which seven to carry. Similarly, cable operators with more than 26 channels would be required to devote no more than 25% of their total channel capacity to local TV stations.