Frank Wright’s 'UPS’ Theory2/07/2009 6:00 AM Eastern
National Religious Broadcasters president Frank Wright was preparing to gather the flock for last weekend’s convention in Nashville, Tenn. He spoke with Multichannel News contributor John Eggerton, Broadcasting & Cable’s Washington bureau chief, on the eve of the convention (set for Feb. 7 to 10) about his group’s continuing split over requiring programming to be sold on an a la carte basis, his views on cable content and why he thinks technology might drive the pay TV business toward a “UPS-style” model of program delivery. An edited transcript follows:
MCN: Where does NRB stand these days on the issue of requiring cable to sell its channels separately?
Frank Wright: We’re an association divided over the issue of a la carte.
FW: Program producers in our association think that it is a great tool for parents to choose what programs they want to bring into their home. But a lot of the other folks who have their carriage via must-carry are a little nervous about an a la carte scenario in which they could get deselected and not carried.
MCN: So, is there any Solomonaic solution?
FW: I think there is a compromise. We thought we had some support from the [Federal Communications Commission] where if nonprofit organizations that produce programming could be carried as part of a mandatory basic tier as part of some a la carte regime, that would probably protect most if not all of our members, and they would be in favor of something like that. But as it stands right now for what’s been floated so far, our members are deeply divided, so we haven’t taken a position.
MCN: How about multicast must-carry?
FW: We are basically in favor of multicast must-carry, believing that there is a lot of programming that is out there that could reach a viewing audience that won’t be able to be reached without the additional channels that multicasting provides.
MCN: But cable operators argue there is a bandwidth crunch.
FW: We don’t really believe the arguments of the cable industry that technologically it is not possible, that they have these huge bandwidth problems. Technology seems to solve those problems every step of the way and compression technologies are a hundred-factor better than they were just 10 years ago.
We think it is an issue of cable wanting to reserve its own capacity for its own business model. There is nothing inherently wrong with that.
We have good friends in the cable industry and I’m not going to beat up on those guys. They are doing the best for their shareholders.
MCN: So, everything’s fine?
FW: My argument about cable with respect to religious broadcasting is that if you were come down from another planet and turn on cable television, you would assume from what you watch that America is a very irreligious nation that has very little concern or interest at all in religious themes as evidenced by the amount of religious broadcasting on air.
And yet, if you read the polls of those people that those believe in God is 85% and, according to a study of some years ago, 141 million Americans watch some form of religious broadcasting once a month, there obviously is tremendous interest in religious programming. But cable in many markets, and in my area, limits all religious broadcasting to a channel that the Roman Catholics and Protestants sort of split.
But [cable has] a different regulatory requirement. We respect that. We are just trying to make our case for why our programming would be a valuable addition to their lineups.
MCN: You say you respect that difference. Should the FCC have the power to regulate cable content as it does broadcast?
FW: Well, it’s hard to justify different regulatory regimes just based on method of distribution. Why should content questions, for example, be different for broadcasters than they are for satellite, cable and Internet?
I happen to think we are moving towards a technological landscape to where all of these systems are going to look like the UPS dude. They’re just delivery systems. Does it matter to me whether the UPS guy knocks on my door or the FedEx Ground person? No, and yet from a regulatory standpoint all these delivery systems get differential treatment.
Now, the devil is in the details and the industry has made good arguments for why there may be a need for differential treatment. But conceptually the landscape has unequal and differential regulation that doesn’t seem to be based on anything rational beyond that it was beamed in by satellite rather than over the air, which is also beamed in.
MCN: Democrats and Republicans have both talked about remaking the FCC so that its functions are not divided up into these regulatory “silos.” Does that play into your argument for less differential treatment of content regulation?
FW: I think that is a good observation, and I think the technical landscape may also start dictating some of these things. Cable is trying to differentiate itself with VOD and the triple play, but I think technology will eventually grind them all down and everything will be delivered to your cellphone, and you will come home and put it on top of your TV set and get all your programming wirelessly. Which I guess is why they are fighting so hard to preserve their platforms. They made huge investments, particularly cable, in hard-wiring the landscape. You just wonder whether technology leapfrogs all that at some point.