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Must-Carry: The Supreme Court Takes a Pass

The U.S. Supreme Court today announced that it is declining to hear Cablevision’s challenge to the must-carry rules, letting stand a Second Circuit ruling upholding the validity of the 1992 rules. Approximately 40% of broadcast stations rely on must-carry to ensure carriage on their local cable systems, with the remainder electing to negotiate retransmission terms for carriage. A closely divided Supreme Court affirmed the validity of the must-carry rules over a decade ago, but Cablevision sought to argue that things have changed since the days of cable monopolies, and that the rules can’t be justified in a world where cable now competes with satellite and other providers for subscribers. However, the real change that Cablevision was banking on was the change in the composition of the Court, with two of the five justices that voted to affirm must-carry in 1997 having left the court, and a third affirming vote, Justice Stevens, having now announced his impending retirement.

Cablevision therefore had reason to think that its appeal, which in many regards was just a “do over” of the earlier unsuccessful challenge, had a chance with the Court’s new mix of justices. What is interesting, and reassuring for broadcasters, is that for the Supreme Court to agree to hear an appeal requires the votes of only four justices, rather than a majority of the nine justices. Declining to hear the appeal means that not even four justices, much less a majority of the court, were interested in reviewing the Second Circuit’s affirmation of the must-carry rules.

So what does that mean? Well, a true optimist from the broadcasters’ perspective would hope it means that three or less justices question the validity of the must-carry rules, and that future appeals will have a very uphill battle to claim five votes in favor of overturning the rules. An optimist for the cable industry would argue that a lot of factors go into determining whether the Court should grant certiorari, only one of which is the likelihood of a resulting decision reversing the lower court. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle, and we may never find out whether the Court’s decision to deny certiorari was a hard-fought internal battle over the merits of the appeal, or merely a simple vote where the justices expressed no appetite for revisiting the issue for any number of reasons.

In the meantime, must-carry remains the law of the land, and it will likely be a while before another appeal can work its way up through the system to reach the Supreme Court. As a result, broadcasters relying on must-carry rights can breath a sigh of relief, at least for now.