News

Concerned Over Confusion

10/24/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

A pair of House lawmakers is concerned that a cable-operator carriage dispute involving more than a dozen LIN TV stations could be confusing consumers about the digital-TV transition and putting artificial demand on the federal government’s $1.5 billion converter-box coupon program.

Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) expressed their bipartisan concerns in letters last Wednesday to Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin and Assistant Commerce Secretary Meredith Attwell Baker.

The lawmakers specifically referred to LIN TV’s decision Oct. 3 to pull signals in 15 markets from the cable systems owned by Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, affecting about 1.6 million cable subscribers combined.

They added that it was possible that cable homes in those markets reacted by seeking $40 DTV converter box coupons from the federal government, which they probably wouldn’t have done if the cable operators continued to carry LIN’s stations.

“It is concerning that some of these coupon requests could come from confused Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers who might not need converter boxes, and very likely would not have applied for coupons but for the fact that LIN TV’s broadcast signals were dropped,” Eshoo and Deal said.

Both lawmakers serve on the Energy and Commerce Committee, a panel which oversees the FCC’s activities.

Eshoo and Deal support a so-called quiet period, to be mandated by the FCC, in which no TV signals could be pulled. Their quiet period would start before Dec. 31, 2008, before thousands of current carriage contracts expire.

Although four FCC members have agreed to seek public comment on various quiet-period dates, Martin has so far refused to join them, despite expressing general support for a quiet period in House testimony in September.

The National Association of Broadcasters, however, has endorsed a one-month voluntary quiet period that wouldn’t begin until Feb. 4, 2009, a proposal rejected by National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow as meaningless because of the post-Dec. 31 start date.

“If policymakers are truly concerned about confusion that could arise from the DTV transition, they should investigate claims raised by Consumer Reports magazine alleging cable operators’ use of the transition as a subterfuge for deceptively upselling consumers into higher programming tiers,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said in a statement.

The national DTV transition is scheduled for Feb. 17, 2009, requiring all full-power TV stations to turn off their analog signals and rely exclusively on their digital signals.

“Many retransmission-consent agreements expire at the end of 2008; the NAB’s proposal to commence a quiet period only in early February 2009 therefore is nothing more than a hollow gesture. The digital transition will be challenging enough without burdening consumers with ill-timed retransmission consent disputes,” NCTA’s McSlarrow said in a statement.

Eshoo and Deal asked Baker, who also heads the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, to provide market-specific data to help determine whether an “uptick” in demand for coupons was related to the retransmission consent disputes.

An NTIA spokesman said last Thursday that NTIA did not have data yet showing a link between an increase in coupon requests and LIN TV’s decision to pull its signals.

“We have never ascribed that to to the LIN TV squabble,” the spokesman said.

NTIA, which is supervising the converter-box coupon program, has funding for 33.5 million coupons, and 12.1 million of them have been used by consumers as of Oct. 15.

LIN TV pulled its stations off Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks systems in Austin, Texas; Buffalo, N.Y.; Columbus, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Green Bay, Wis.; Indianapolis; Mobile, Ala.; Springfield, Mass.; Terre Haute, Ind.; and Toledo, Ohio.

Time Warner said 1.5 million of its subscribers are affected, while 106,000 Bright House customers are impacted in Indianapolis.

LIN TV is seeking a 30-cent license fee for its stations. Time Warner Cable has said it doesn’t want to pay for broadcast signals that are available for free over the air.

Linda Moss contributed to this report.

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