Affiliates Protest DTV Terms in Stevens Bill


The independent affiliates of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are protesting provisions in a Senate telecommunications bill that relate to cable-system carriage of digital-broadcast signals until 2014.
Under the bill (S. 2686), sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), cable systems would be permitted to downconvert local TV HD signals to a lower resolution format called standard definition, which does not provide the viewer with the same super-sharp picture quality as HD. The bill would authorize cable downconversion until Feb. 17, 2014.

“Permitting cable systems to degrade broadcasters’ HDTV signals to standard definition would break faith with consumers who have already purchased HDTV sets in reliance on being able to receive the Super Bowl or NASCAR races, and scores of other programs, in full high-definition,” the network affiliates said in a letter to Stevens sent May 26.

The letter was signed by the president of each network affiliate association, representing about 800 stations combined.

The Senate Commerce Committee is schedule to meet June 20 to vote on the Stevens bill, a major piece of legislation that would also expedite phone company entry into cable markets and require the Federal Communications Commission to monitor the commercial activities of broadband access providers.

With regard to digital television, the Stevens bill would appear to allow cable downconversion only with regard to TV stations that rely on federal law to demand cable carriage, commonly called must carry. The station groups that wrote Stevens typically don’t rely on must carry; instead, they negotiate cable carriage in a triennial process called retransmission consent.

A broadcast attorney said that if the Stevens bill is read to allow cable downconversion of retransmission consent stations, the stations would need to use up one of their “bargain chips” with cable operators to ensure that their HD signals reached the homes of cable subscribers.