Regulators may allow cable-TV to drop some local stations

Debate is intensifying this week about a new agreement among cable and commercial TV broadcasters over the kinds of local-broadcast station signals a cable company needn't carry to the homes of its subscribers. The agreement is now under review by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington.

Critics charge that, if allowed to stand, the proposed changes in the so-called ``must-carry'' rule would give the cable operators a ``remote control'' over public broadcasting.

Public broadcasters, independent television operators, minority groups, and other interested parties have been filing their objections prior to the FCC's April 25 deadline for ``public reply.''

The parties seeking FCC approval of the change are the National Cable Television Association, the Community Antenna Television Association, the Television Operators Caucus, the Association of Independent Television Stations, and the National Association of Broadcasters.

Neither the National Association of Public Television Stations nor the Public Broadcasting Service was invited to the meetings in which the agreement was formulated, although they might be directly affected by the agreement. Nor was the National Coalition for Minority Broadcasting, also an interested party, invited.

The agreement would exempt cable services from carrying stations with less than a 2 percent share of the viewing audience, and it would also limit the total number of TV stations that must be carried on a cable system. Local stations in sparsely-populated areas and stations that appeal mainly to small audiences would probably suffer, say critics of the agreement.

Public television could suffer because cable systems with 20 or fewer channels -- which comprise more than one-third of all cable systems in the US -- would not be required to carry any PBS stations at all. The larger cable systems would no longer be required to carry a public TV station that simultaneously broadcasts the programming carried by another PBS station on the cable system.

According to the National Black Media Coalition in Washington, the agreement would result in ``protection for the rich stations at the expense of the poor stations.''

The National Coalition for Minority Broadcasting based in Pacific Palisades, Calif., filed its reply comments, together with support letters from 40 organizations and individuals. ``Under the current proposals,'' the group says, ``there is a strong likelihood that the future of minority television expression and viewer participation will become a victim of regulatory abandonment.''

After the agreement was announced in February, the National Independent Television Committee was created, mainly to try to defeat the accord. Pluria Marshall, chairman of the committee's board, says the proposal ``sets a dangerous precedent, not only for broadcasters but for the entire nation . . . . You cannot qualify a speaker's right to be heard through an arbitrary quantifier such as ratings.''

Peter Fannon, president of National Association of Public Television Stations, says, ``The must-carry agreement could be a disaster for public television . . . .Its provisions are fundamentally at odds with the mission and governmental mandate of public broadcasting. Free, uninterrupted carriage of all local public television stations on cable can and should be guaranteed by the federal government. That's the best practical way to preserve the public's interest -- and huge investment -- in its nationwide, not-for-profit television service.''

Supporters of the agreement dispute the critics' assessment. Steve Tuttle of the National Cable Television Association, says, ``Cable operators have to do business in the marketplace, offering a diversity of programming that consumers want and are willing to pay for. Our problem [with PBS and minority programming] is that, while we recognize there is very valuable programming there, we are at a loss to understand why one particular type of TV station should get preferential treatment.''

John Summers, senior executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, says, ``The agreement all but guarantees the carriage of at least one PBS station in every market in the country. The whole approach of the agreement is that cable should be able to exercise its First Amendment rights with no preference for any class or type of station.''

Public television, nonetheless, is going all out to prevent the FCC from accepting the agreement, unless it is revised. Martin Rubenstein, president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the conduit and oversight agency for channeling tax dollars to public broadcasting, has been sending circulars to commercial and cable operators, warning that their agreement would damage PBS.

Not all the opposition comes from PBS and minority stations, however. Some ABC affiliates were reported to be unhappy with the agreement because it could penalize local stations for affiliating with a national network by denying them access to a cable system already carrying that network.

Bruce Christensen, president of PBS, has been urging the FCC to rule against the agreement, because, in his view, it could give cable systems ``remote control over delivery of public television service to the nation, with the potential of denying it to millions of viewers.

``Public television's ability to serve all Americans,'' Mr. Christensen continues, ``is jeopardized by this must-carry agreement, which provides no guarantees that those citizens who have supported public television can continue to enjoy its services via cable.''

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