Squeeze on local TV stations 'Must carry' rule: Area broadcast stations need cable access to reach local audiences.

March 18, 1996

GALLOPING DEREGULATION of telecommunications often promises more consumer benefit than it delivers. Cable television is an example. While expanding the choices of channels that produce profits, the cable operator seeks to limit which local broadcast TV stations it must carry.

The federal law that forces cable systems to carry local broadcast TV station signals (which most people used to receive by rooftop antenna or rabbit-ears on the set) is before the Supreme Court for review again this year, after being upheld twice by a federal appeals panel.

While federal law oversees much of cable operation, local governments that grant the cable franchise authority have kept tight control over basic services covering local broadcast channels and public-interest cable stations. That means a low, affordable price for basic services.

Cable companies recognize that profitability lies in providing non-basic services, such as a variety of cable-only channels (CNN or ESPN, for example), premium channels and pay-per-view entertainments. With limited cable channels available, they aim to use more of them for profitable non-basic offerings.

Since two-thirds of homes with television receive cable, the fear is that cable companies would act as "bottlenecks" to reception of local broadcast stations, threatening their survival. In 1994, the Supreme Court told the Federal Communications Commission to provide more economic justification for its "must carry" rule.

A fundamental issue before the court is the degree of First Amendment protection provided the cable industry, which argues for its right of free speech to decide what it will carry.

But the cable monopoly role in most communities can shrink programming diversity, even while expanding the number of channels. That's why the "must carry" rule was created, and why it should be affirmed.

Pub Date: 3/18/96

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