Minority And Rural Groups Oppose FCC's Plan To Change Cable TV Rules - InformationWeek

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11/19/2007
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Minority And Rural Groups Oppose FCC's Plan To Change Cable TV Rules

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin reportedly wants to require cable companies to allow a la carte service, so consumers can buy individual channels.

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. and the Rainbow/Push Coalition have joined with the League of Rural Voters and the Hispanic Federation in opposition of the Federal Communications Commission's plans to overhaul cable TV regulations.

The FCC is considering revising its cable TV regulations, using the so-called 70/70 rule as justification. The 70/70 rule states that when 70% of American homes can access cable and 70% of those with access subscribe, the FCC can impose new regulations to ensure competition. Many groups, including cable and telecommunications companies, dispute whether the threshold has been met.

While the disputed rule was adopted to ensure competition, several groups are saying the plan would hurt minorities, rural voters, and consumers. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin reportedly wants cable providers to allow à la carte service, so consumers can select individual channels rather than packages. Minority groups say that à la carte service would ruin the business model that supports minority-owned channels.

"It is deeply disturbing to learn from the news media that the FCC is considering using an antiquated legal rule to advance what is widely seen by civil rights leaders as an anti-diversity agenda," Jackson said in a statement released Monday. "There is virtually no political support from either progressives or conservatives for such pet policies as à la carte pricing, which would raise prices for consumers and hurt most programmers, or for the various 'leased access' programs that will squeeze out channel space for minority-owned programmers."

Jackson criticized the FCC for circumventing the legislative process to change policy by invoking the 70/70 rule in the 1984 Cable Act.

Lillian Rodriguez Lopez, president of the Hispanic Federation, said the move was a way to promote an "anti-diversity agenda" after failing to gain legislative support. She said Martin wants to use the rule as a loophole for new regulations that would allow "à la carte pricing," leased access, and multicast, must-carry rules.

"If implemented, these policies could undermine Hispanic-owned networks on cable by depriving them of the economic model that supports them as well as drying up limited channel space by instead handing it to throw-away channels like home shopping networks and 24-hour weather monitoring," she said. "These are bad ideas that will have devastating effects on Hispanic ownership and representation in the media. It seems that Chairman Martin has recognized that the only way to push through these unpopular policies is by taking advantage of regulatory loopholes and annexing authority that belongs to the legislatures."

League of Rural Voters executive director Niel Ritchie said that if the FCC invokes the rule, low- and middle-income rural subscribers will pay more for cable and have less program choice.

"The FCC's continuing effort to stiff-arm rural viewers has hit a new low," Ritchie said in a statement.

Ritchie said Martin is "kowtowing to consumer electronics companies" and has allowed an effective $600 million tax on set-top boxes that costs consumers while endangering the transition to digital broadcast television in rural America.

"Now, by threatening to invoke the FCC's outdated 70/70 authority, which contemplates an uncompetitive marketplace entirely different than the one American consumers have come to know, the Chairman is committing a completely unreasonable legal overreach, twisting both fact and Congressional intent to enact the very same rules -- multicast must carry, a more expansive leased access regime, and even à la carte cable rules -- that Congress would not," Ritchie said. "The League of Rural Voters hopes that the Commission will air on the side of helping the American heartland move further into the Digital Age without being saddled with unwarranted economic burden."

This story was modified to correct FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's name.

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