When Is a TV Not a TV?


On Feb. 17, 2009, your old analog TV set will cease to be a "television receiver" under federal law, according to the cable industry. The FCC suggests otherwise.

Why would this semantic debate interest anyone besides policy wonks? It goes to the heart of the next battle royale between cable operators and broadcasters.

The issue, once again, is "dual must-carry," an idea cable has fought tooth and nail for years. It’s come up again: Come February 2009, when TV broadcasters must stop sending out their analog channels over the airwaves, the FCC has proposed two options for cable: either go "all-digital" (which presumably means all subscribers are outfitted with digital set-tops) or be required to simulcast analog and digital feeds from local broadcasters.

Actually, those aren’t real options at all, the National Cable & Telecommunications Assocation said this week in blasting the FCC’s proposal. Providing digital set-tops for the estimated 126 million analog sets would be insanely expensive–$6.3 billion, by the NCTA’s calculations. That would make the pointless CableCARD exercise look like pocket change.

As for the other "option" — the FCC’s proposed dual must-carry rule — the NCTA called it "a perpetual violation of the Constitution." In effect, the NCTA says, it would be an unlawful seizure of private property.

Now, back to the TV-that’s-not-a-TV question. Must-carry provisions require that broadcast channels "shall be viewable via cable on all television receivers of a subscriber which are connected to a cable system."

So if there aren’t any analog TV signals for an analog set to tune to, is the thing still a TV receiver? (If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?) The FCC says yes, that’s an "eminently reasonable conclusion." 

Cable says: No way! "There is nothing in the statute — or in logic — that suggests a device that is no longer capable of receiving an over-the-air broadcast signal should continue to be treated as a television receiver," Comcast argued to the FCC. NCTA made the same comment. The position is that analog TVs, after February 2009, are not covered under must-carry rules.

The point to keep in mind is that cable actually wants to continue offering analog signals, in some cases. But operators don’t want to be forced to provide dual transmission (or triple-cast, if you include HD). They want the latitude to be able to negotiate carriage of anything apart from the primary digital signal from a broadcaster.

Analog, in fact, is today and will continue to be a competitive advantage: Satellite and telco can’t offer analog video channels (or in Verizon’s case, it does but will stop–a step it’s taking only to get a waiver to the FCC’s integrated set-top ban).

Only cable will have a video service you can use with your decades-old TV set without an extra converter or set-top box. Or, you could always use the TV as a doorstop.