Sorry, No Blanket

3/07/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin signaled last Tuesday that he remains opposed to blanket waivers for small cable operators from rules that require analog and digital carriage of some local TV stations in early 2009.

“I think the commission adopted last fall a waiver process and I think that makes the most sense,” Martin told reporters last week at FCC headquarters.

That means the FCC will evaluate each waiver request individually, regardless of the cost on small business.

Martin also repeated his view that operators shouldn’t be uncomfortable with the carriage rules because all the FCC did was codify the status quo.

“As I have stated several times publicly, all we are asking the small cable operators to end up doing is doing the same thing they are carrying today,” Martin said.

The FCC rules — adopted last September with a Feb. 18, 2009, effective date — require cable systems to provide analog and digital versions of local TV signals for stations that have elected mandatory carriage. The rules last for three years and exempt a small number of systems that have already gone all-digital.

Today, cable operators are required to carry the analog signals of stations that elect must-carry, with carriage of digital signals being optional. After the Feb. 17, 2009, digital-TV transition, must-carry rights shift to the digital signals.

Instead of carriage of the digital signal in analog being an option — which would track the regulatory status quo — the FCC’s rules make provision of a digital signal and an analog copy of the same signal a requirement.

In his discussion, Martin never acknowledged that carriage of digital signals today is optional unless a digital station never had an analog license or has already surrendered it.

“Today, [cable operators] are carrying those analog broadcast signals to their analog cable subscribers and to their digital cable subscribers, to the extent they have any, and making sure that all of their subscribers get access to all of the free over-the-air broadcast signals,” Martin said.

The American Cable Association, a consortium of 1,100 small companies that serve 7 million subscribers, has asked the FCC to provide a blanket waiver from the dual carriage rules for any system with 5,000 subscribers of fewer or with less than 552 Megaherz of capacity, citing financial hardship on small providers as the basis for the request.

With a blanket waiver, ACA members would provide only an analog copy of digital-TV signals from stations that elected must-carry status, the trade group said.

“These systems should be able to comply with must-carry obligations by converting must-carry signals to analog and distributing them to all basic subscribers,” ACA said in a March 2 FCC filing.

Given Martin’s hostility, ACA is unlikely to prevail even if a majority of the five FCC members are sympathetic. Martin always has the option of keeping the group’s request caged in the Media Bureau.

ACA’s job wasn’t made any easier after the National Association of Broadcasters — which used to say that small operators had legitimate concerns about DTV transition burdens — told the FCC to reject blanket waivers for small operators.

“There is no evidence that there is any need for such relief. The burden is modest,” the NAB said in FCC comment filed March 3.