The National Association of Broadcasters said yesterday it would ask the Supreme Court to review a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling overturning a Federal Communications Commission requirement that cable television systems carry every local station in their area.
The FCC regulation, known as the "must-carry" rule, was adopted to protect local broadcasters by extending the reach of their signal, thereby ensuring diversity.
Cable companies are asking the FCC to waive its rule so that they can refuse to broadcast the signals of new television stations now coming on line, according to independent broadcasters. About 283 new stations coming into operation across the country could be affected by the appeals court ruling, which is scheduled to take effect Sept. 3, according to the NAB, which asked for a stay pending Supreme Court action.
The appellate court ruled in July that the FCC's "must-carry" rule violated constitutional guarantees of free speech.
The court acted in cases brought by Quincy Cable TV, of Washington state, and by Turner Broadcasting System of Atlanta. Cable operators and the National Cable Television Association have said the new rules will allow cable systems to eliminate signals of duplicate network affiliates and other local stations in which subscribers have little interest, and replace them with programming subscribers want.
NCTA Executive Vice President Bert Carp said most broadcasters would not be affected by the elimination of the FCC rules. Because the court decision is not yet in effect, no signals are actively being dropped by cable operators, he said.
"Right after the must-carry rule was struck down , one of the major cable systems in the Quad Cities said they would not carry us," said Lee Hanna, operator of KLJB-TV, an independent UHF station broadcasting to five cities in Iowa and Illinois. The station had come on line nine days after the ruling. Group W, in Rock Island, Illinois "got so many calls from subscribers that they changed their minds," he said.
"We have been requested by some cable systems to pay and we have refused," he said. In a survey of 53 cable systems in the week following the decision, Hanna said, only three said they would carry KLJB's signal. "This could be disaster for UHF and independent television stations," he said.
"It is almost impossible for a small, local TV station to become a viable, profitable operation with such a major portion of its market denied to it," said Donald Sterling, president of KTIE-TV, which went on the air Aug. 17 as the first local station to begin broadcasting in Ventura County, Calif. Group W cable system in Simi Valley has filed for a waiver of FCC rules, he said, and Cox Cable of Santa Barbara has said no channels are available since the court decision.
Spokesmen for Group W and Cox Communications Inc., the third and fourth largest cable operators in the nation, said no actions were being taken to drop signals now carried, but that the court decision was being assessed.
The FCC has 200 waivers on file asking for exemption from the must-carry rule. The FCC will not require cable operators who file for a waiver to broadcast the signals of new stations just coming on the air, but at the same time will not allow signals to be dropped pending the outcome of any court review, an FCC official said. Any cable company dropping signals before the court decision goes into effect is subject to enforcement action by the agency, said William Johnson, deputy chief of the FCC's mass media bureau.
In a survey of 127 broadcast stations, commissioned by the NAB and conducted by ERLA Group, a consulting firm based in San Fransisco, Calif., 27 broadcasters said they have received notice from at least one cable system that they either will be dropped from the system or must pay to have their signals broadcast when the rule is eliminated.