The Supreme Court on Monday refused to force cable television operators to carry all local TV signals on their systems.
The justices, without comment, let stand a ruling that struck down as unconstitutional the Federal Communications Commission's so-called "must carry" rules.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here ruled last July 19 that the rules "coerce speech" because they require cable operators "to carry the signals of local broadcasters . . . irrespective of whether the operator considers them appropriate programming for the community it serves."
The appeals court said the rules unduly limited the programming selections made by cable operators, and thus violated their free-speech rights.
But the ruling left open the possibility that the FCC could redraft the rules to make them acceptable.
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger on Sept. 9 refused to postpone the effect of the appeals court's ruling.
The National Assn. of Broadcasters, the Assn. of Independent Television Stations and other broadcast organizations urged the Supreme Court to revive the rules, saying they fear cable operators may drop their signals.
"If the (appeals court) decision stands, cable television operators will be the sole arbitrators of what television signals . . . millions of homes are able to watch," their appeal contended.
But commission lawyers told the justices the FCC "no longer wishes to maintain the must carry rules invalidated by the court of appeals."
They said the commission "is considering various regulatory alternatives."
The rules entitled a television station to insist that its signal be carried and retransmitted on any cable system serving the station's local service area.
Cable systems, particularly those with as few as 12 channels, have opposed the rules because they often forced them to run the same programming on a number of channels if the stations are required to carry broadcast programs from the same network.
For example, a cable system in Maryland might be forced to carry the signal of the NBC affiliates in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., even though the programming is identical much of the time.
The appeals court's ruling last July came in challenges to the must carry rules by Ted Turner, owner of Turner Broadcasting System Inc., and Quincy Cable TV Inc. of Quincy, Wash.
Cable-TV industry officials Monday welcomed the Supreme Court decision, but said it would have no immediate impact on cable viewers.
"We expect no wholesale re-ordering of the status-quo," said James McIlveen, a spokesman for the National Cable Television Assn. in Washington. "Cable operators will continue to carry most local broadcast signals."