So the judge heard the motion for a restraining order by Dearborn and Meridian to keep Comcast from migrating PEG channels to digital. The court issued the restraining order, finding that the towns were more likely than not to prevail on several of their issues, that Comcast would suffer no harm from the delay, but that the cities would potentially suffer irreparable harm if Comcast migrated the PEG channels to where most citizens couldn’t see them. (You can find the opinion, the pleadings, and other useful information here.)
On the question of the definition of “basic tier” I raised in yesterday’s post, the court found:
1) Nothing requires a cable operator to offer the basic package as all digital or all analog, so it is more likely than not that Comcast can migrate PEG to digital while keeping broadcast channels analog.
2) However, cable operators must offer the basic tier on equal terms. Requiring rental of additional equipment to get part of the basic tier therefore is more likely than not a violation of law.
A preliminary restraining order is not a final judgment. The court must make a determination on what arguments are “likely to prevail.” But the court may rule otherwise once the questions are fully briefed and argued. Hence, the “more likely than not” language.
But the courts findings produce some oddball results. By implication, at least so far, the court accepts that the obligation to offer a “basic tier” persists even after the FCC finds “effective competition.” But despite what I would think is fairly straightforward legislative language and strong legislative language, the court thinks it more likely than not that cable operators can treat the elements of the basic package in a different way from each other.
I expect fights over the basic package and the meaning of Section 623(b)(8) to become much more common, as cable operators try to migrate more popular programming to digital and look to stop carrying analog after the digital transition. For me, the real question is: “Will the FCC weigh in?” If so, when, and how? Under NCTA v. Brand X (yes, that Brand X), the FCC can weigh in at any time, since a decision by a court deciding the issue does not alter the deference due to the agency. So there’s no rush for the FCC to assert jurisdiction on its own. Cable operators are rather unlikely to rush in and ask the FCC to start a rulemaking to preempt the states on this issue. So will someone else go to the FCC and ask them to resolve the issue? PEG supporters or local governments would be a logical choice, but they don’t exactly have warm fuzzy feelings about this FCC Chairman given his willingness to preempt local franchise authorities to the detriment of PEG and local consumer protection. Especially given the outcome in Michigan (which buys time) and the possibility of Congressional help, I expect the PEG folks to wait and see what the new FCC looks like before going to the FCC.
Broadcasters might also look to get the FCC involved early, rather than wait for a situation to develop. But that seems unlikely. Still, if folks at PBS or folks representing the independent affiliates get spooked, or if problems develop in the field, we may see the broadcasters come in.
Finally, the FCC itself could wake up and notice the issue. But that also strikes me as unlikely.
Stay tuned . . . .