THE SUPREME COURT'S decision requiring cable companies to continue to carry local broadcasters is as much a victory for congressional authority as for local broadcasters. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted that "Congress has an independent interest in preserving a multiplicity of broadcasters to ensure that all households have access to information and entertainment on an equal footing with those who subscribe to cable."
Since the ruling upholds current practice, viewers will not see major changes resulting from the court's action. In fact, Justice Kennedy noted that the regulation known as the "must-carry" rule has not had widespread negative effects, suggesting to the majority of justices that it is narrowly tailored "to preserve a multiplicity of broadcast stations for the 40 percent of American households without cable."
Those households were a major concern for supporters of the rule. They argued that without it the local broadcasters available to these viewers would be at the mercy of cable operators, especially those small stations that add diversity beyond the major networks.
But the rule does deprive many cable viewers of important offerings. C-Span, the cable station specializing in congressional coverage, has found its market share diminished because cable companies are forced to carry local stations, even when they duplicate other cable offerings. As a result, C-Span often loses out in the competition to remain in a crowded line-up.
So the decision was not necessarily an unvarnished victory for television that best serves the public interest. But the court is right to grant Congress the authority to impose some regulations on the choices made by cable broadcasters. The current rules may not be perfect, as the C-Span dilemma illustrates. But that can be remedied with changes in the law. In the meantime, non-cable households deserve to have their choices preserved.
Pub Date: 4/04/97