Monopolies And The First Amendment: Uneasy TV Partners

TV's future may be all about digital platforms, including video-on-demand--but the present is all about shelf space, where there is pretty much still only one supermarket.

Local broadcasters and cable operators, along with their cable network partners, are squaring off in a fight over local TV stations' multi-cast signals --that in effect would give local broadcasters up to six local digital channels.

The National Association of Broadcasters has come up with a print campaign that shows TV broadcasters' point of view.

It shows two versions of a man watching TV. In one version, he is watching six different channels with the caption, "Here's what local broadcasters have to offer." On the other, he is watching just one channel with the caption, "Here's what the cable monopolies want you to see."

The truth is, cable monopolies probably would agree to one digital channel and one analog channel--maybe even two digital channels.



Cable operators and cable networks are fighting back, working against a possible regulation that would force them, under "must-carry" provisions, to carry all local digital signals--all of which would create massive shelf space problems for cable networks, many of which will most assuredly be tossed off systems.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has proposed reversing two earlier FCC decisions and requiring cable to carry all of a broadcaster's multiple free digital channels, not just a digital duplicate of its analog channel.

The cable industry now says its first amendment rights will be violated. Of course, what this really means is that cable wants to hold onto a possible bigger piece of the pie. Discovery Networks, MTV Networks, or another cable network group, wants the chance to add more channels to their existing stable of channels already on the air.

For years, local broadcasters have suffered through the incursion of cable taking away share of audience. But now that technology is here for stations to offer up their own stable of local channels, the cable operators are crying foul.

 Shockingly, every TV or cable company has First Amendment rights. But cable is slightly different. Since the dawn of cable in the '70s, regulatory issues, programming concerns and other problems, always come back to one word--monopoly.  Though satellite distributors are growing, cable operators are pretty much the only terrestrial TV game in town for most of the U.S.

 And so we come back to some uneasy words and ideas sitting side-by-side: Monopoly or the First Amendment.

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