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Martin Revives Class-A Must-Carry

9/26/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

Cable operators could be required to carry hundreds of low-power TV stations for the first time under a proposal sponsored by Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin.

Martin, meeting with reporters last week, said he would like the agency to vote on his plan at the Oct. 15 public meeting here. The first phase would involve seeking public comment, a process that can take a few months to complete.

It’s not clear whether Martin, a Republican, will even be chairman in a few months, especially if Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is elected president in November. Obama can replace Martin immediately after taking office on Jan. 20.

Martin’s plan would allow 555 Class-A TV stations to apply for full-power status from the FCC. After obtaining approval, the stations could demand immediate cable carriage under a 1992 law held constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1997.

According to FCC data, 43% of Class-A stations are Spanish-language broadcasters, a group that deserves help from the agency to better serve minority communities, Martin said.

“I think it’s an important opportunity…to help to try provide opportunities for diverse broadcasters to be able to provide service to those Spanish-speaking homes,” Martin told reporters.

Martin floated his new cable must-carry plan in February. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the trade group for major cable operators and programmers, continues to oppose it.

“Requiring cable operators to carry hundreds of Class-A low-power stations would violate the constitution and Congress’ intent while jeopardizing the wide diversity of programming that is already available on cable systems nationwide,” said NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz.

The National Association of Broadcasters has repeatedly said that must-carry rights for full-power stations directly benefit religious and Spanish-language broadcasters. But the trade group has refused to endorse expansion of the must-carry regime to include Class-A stations.

“NAB has not taken a position on this,” said Dennis Wharton, the trade group’s spokesman.

NAB’s reluctance has annoyed the Community Broadcasters Association, the trade group for the country’s 2,862 low-power TV stations.

“I am both excited about this rule-making and grateful to Chairman Martin for his leadership in bringing the item to a vote,” said CBA president Ron Bruno. “I hope and believe that the other commissioners will step up to the plate and cast their votes in favor of the principles of localism and diversity they all have espoused.”

CBA estimates that 37 Class-A stations are religious broadcasters.

Obtaining full-power status would not be automatic for Class-A stations, Martin said.

“We would have to do an engineering analysis for anyone who wanted to be able to say they want to become a full power station and serve their community of license without causing interference to anyone else,” he said. “We would be doing that on a case-by-case basis.”

Martin’s original justification for his plan was that automatic cable carriage would boost the economic value of Class-A stations, making it easier for them to finance their transition to digital broadcasting.

He is now emphasizing the plan’s benefits to Spanish broadcasters.

“We’ve continued to hear from folks on the outside and even from some of the commissioners the importance of continuing to try to look for ways to diversify the media opportunities, and to make sure that there [are] opportunities for new and diverse voices to be heard in our local communities,” he said.

September