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Must-carry, from A to B

Fri, 03/31/2006 - 7:00pm
Stewart Schley

There are 119 TV channels available to customers of the cable company Cebridge Connections in the central Washington town of Quincy, a small farming community near the Wenatchee Valley. Channels 2 through 12 are populated mostly by local over-the-air TV stations, and only three national cable networks enjoy a prized position within the low-band channel group. One is The Weather Channel, one is QVC, and the third is TBS. There's a poetic symmetry there. The cable system serving Quincy and the cable network once known as Superstation WTBS enjoy a kinship that once allowed the cable industry—if only for a short time—to choose what channels to offer to customers, with minimal government mandates.

Stewart Schley
In 1979, when the Quincy cable company offered 12 channels, not 119, its owners made a controversial decision. After reviewing a survey of customers, Quincy Cable determined its customers would rather have three new cable channels than three over-the-air TV stations imported from Spokane. The new cable channels would offer fresh choices, Quincy Cable reasoned, and besides, the three Spokane stations carried programs already available to viewers from a trio of Seattle TV stations Quincy Cable offered. Its attorneys wrote a petition to the Federal Communications Commission in November of that year, asking for permission to drop the Spokane stations to make room for the new cable channels.

Six months later, the FCC spoke: The answer was "no." Quincy Cable's attorneys asked again. The answer was still "no." A third petition produced the same answer. It was after the third strike that Quincy Cable committed a more brash and independent act. It dropped two of the Spokane stations anyway.

That action set into motion an all-out war over the FCC's so-called "must-carry" rules that had been in place since 1972.

Quincy Cable hadn't simply shuffled the lineup in a rural cable market. It had defied a rule that many up-and-coming programmers, like WTBS boss Ted Turner, viewed as a daunting barrier to market entry. With cable channel capacities at the time typically measured in the dozens, not the hundreds, forced carriage of over-the-air signals meant there were relatively few slots available for the likes of Turner's WTBS, USA Network and a handful of other emerging channels.

Even after Quincy Cable expanded its capacity to 32 channels by January 1983, it stuck to its original position that forced carriage of broadcast stations was the wrong policy. That's what Quincy argued in an appeal to the District of Columbia Circuit Court, which took note of the expanded capacity and remanded the appeal to the FCC for fresh consideration. Fat chance. The FCC reaffirmed its earlier decision, and Quincy Cable was back where it started.

That's as far as things might have gone, except that Ted Turner, who appreciated a maverick act when he saw one, was on a similar warpath. His company's separate petition for a rulemaking argued that Turner Broadcasting suffered economic injury because cable systems crowded with government-mandated local signals had no room to add his networks. Like his comrades-in-arms in Quincy, Wash., Turner lost at the FCC, which denied his petition. The twin challenges from Turner and Quincy were later combined in another appeal that—finally—produced the decision the cable company and Turner were after. On July 19, 1985, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals was unanimous in ruling the FCC's must-carry rules violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Again in 1987, upon challenge from broadcasters, the ruling was upheld.

Notable from a technology standpoint about the (temporary) snuffing out of the must-carry rules was a reliance on a humble switching device to create a sort of cable-broadcasting truce. From 1987 through 1992, when a new version of must-carry became law, the cable industry was required to offer to customers an "A-B switch" that could be used to instruct a TV set to tune in signals either from the incoming cable or a separate over-the-air receiving antenna. In reality, few customers bothered, despite annual notices from cable companies offering up the inexpensive gadgets.

But the market's inattention alone doesn't mean the A-B switch was such a bad idea. At the root of the A-B approach was the sound philosophical belief that customers could choose for themselves how to get their TV (literally via the flip of a switch). Today, as the cable and broadcasting industries fight again over how to parse the application of must-carry rules to new digital TV signals, the idea that customers might choose for themselves seems lost altogether. Maybe what the industry really needs isn't another must-carry law, but an inventive technology solution. The kind that would let people watch whatever they want, whenever they want, over whatever delivery network suits them.

Stewart Schley writes about media and technology from Englewood, Colo.

Have a comment? Contact Stewart via e-mail at: ss_edit@comcast.net

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