U.S. Cable Regulation

Must-carry rules, which mandate that cable companies carry various local and public television stations within a cable provider's service area, have a long and dramatic history since their inception in 1972. Designed originally to insure that local television stations did not lose market share with increased competition from cable networks competing for a limited number of cable channels, must-carry rules have, over time, been ruled unconstitutional and gone through numerous changes.

When first passed in 1972, the must-carry rules required that cable companies provide channels for all local broadcasters within a 60-mile (later changed to 50-mile) radius of the cable company's service area. In the mid-1980s, various cable companies, including superstation WTBS owner Turner Broadcasting, brought suit against the FCC, claiming the rules were unconstitutional. In 1985 and 1987, the U.S. Court of Appeals found that must-carry rules did, indeed, violate the First Amendment. From then until 1992, stations were only required to carry public television signals and provide subscribers with an option for an A/B switch to allow access to local broadcast signals. This change bode particularly ill for small UHF stations, whose cable carriers could replace them with stronger, more desirable superstations.

The 1992 Communications Act, while still requiring carriage of local commercial and public stations, allowed cable companies to drop redundant carriage of signals, where stations within the service area duplicated programming (for example, two stations within a fifty mile radius carrying the same network or two college public broadcasting stations both carrying PBS). More confusion resulted when, in October 1994, the FCC gave stations a choice of being carried under the must-carry rules or under a new regulation requiring cable companies to obtain retransmission consent before carrying a broadcast signal. The retransmission consent ruling gave desirable local stations increased power to negotiate the terms of carriage the cable company would provide, including channel preference.

Must-carry rules were still in effect upon passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act--and still being challenged by cable companies. None of the must-carry rules effect cable retransmission of FM radio signals.

-Michael B. Kassel


Bittner, John R. Law and Regulation of Electronic Media. New York: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Eastman, Susan Tyler, Sydney W. Head, and Lewis Klein. Broadcast/Cable Programming Strategies and Practices. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1981; 3rd edition, 1989.

Hilliard, Robert L. and Michael C. Keith. The Broadcast Century. Boston: Focal, 1992.


See also United States: Cable Television; Distant Signal; Federal Communications Commission