It was incorrectly reported in Tuesday's Business section that the Supreme Court declined to block a lower court decision lifting Federal Communications Commission rules requiring cable television systems to carry all local channels. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger acted alone on it.
The Supreme Court yesterday refused to stay a lower court's ruling that gives cable television operators across the country the ability to pick and choose which local television stations their system will carry.
The high court rejected the National Association of Broadcasters' bid to stay a ruling by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that toppled the Federal Communications Commission's "must-carry" rules. They required cable operators to carry all the television stations in their market. The appellate court ruled in July that these FCC rules violated the constitutional guarantee of free speech.
"We are ecstatic," said a statement from the National Cable Television Association. "This is very strong support for the D.C. Circuit's decision. It is strong confirmation of cable's status as a First Amendment editor. It is also a victory for our consumers."
"We are very disappointed, to put it mildly," said an NAB spokeswoman.
NAB President Edward O. Fritts said he hopes that, despite the absence of a stay, the Supreme Court will judge the petition carefully for review on the merits of the case. The NAB plans to appeal the lower court's ruling on Sept. 18.
Proponents of the FCC's "must-carry" rules argued they were essential in protecting the diversity and reach of local broadcasters in their communities. Critics of the rules -- primarily cable systems operators and new cable television channel services -- said that the regulations led to duplicate broadcasting of network affiliates and reduced the number of channels available for other services , including potentially lucrative pay-television channels. This was a particular criticism from some of the older cable systems that could carry only a dozen channels.
The court ruled in cases filed by Quincy Cable and Turner Broadcasting System of Atlanta. Ted Turner, the chairman of TBS, long has been a vociferous critic of the must-carry rules, asserting that they made it difficult to market new program services.
However, cable companies also have sought to eliminate the rules so they could refuse to carry the signals of some 283 new local television stations that are scheduled to begin broadcasting because, in some cases, they would have to remove existing channels.
"It is almost impossible for a small, local television 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 last month in Ventura County, California. Group W Cable, the local system that would carry the channel, had asked the FCC for permission not to carry KTIE.
Group W's refusal to carry KTIE -- along with the refusal of other local cable systems -- would mean a minimum loss of more than 30 percent of the channel's potential audience, according to NAB figures.
Yesterday's denial of the stay means that none of the cable systems could be compelled to carry the station without a successful appeal to the Supreme Court.
Locally, WHMM -- the television statrion owned by Howard University -- would lose 45 percent of its potential viewing audience in the Charles County, Maryland, area, because the cable system there does not have to carry it.
Other cable operators are seeking to charge local broadcast stations for the privilege of being carried on the system.
Leaving open the possibility that the FCC could redraft the must-carry provisions to make them acceptable, the appeals court said the rules "are fundamentally at odds with the First Amendment and, as currently drafted, can no longer be permitted."
However, there are no pending FCC actions to revise the rules, and FCC Chairman Mark Fowler has said publicly that they violated the First Amendment.