Anstrom: Must-Carry Madness

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Washington -- National Cable Television Association
president Decker Anstrom called it must-carry madness. And that's the potential fate of
the basic tier if cable operators are forced to carry digital-local-broadcast signals.

Under current law, a subscriber is required to buy the
basic tier as a prerequisite to the purchase of cable-programming services like Cable News
Network and premium services like Home Box Office.

While operators may include popular cable networks on
basic, many prefer to provide a low-cost basic tier consisting of local-broadcast and
public-access channels.

It's entirely possible that the Federal Communications
Commission, in order to expedite the transition to digital and to hasten the return of
broadcasters' analog spectrum, will couple a digital must-carry requirement with a
separate mandate that cable operators include digital-TV signals on the basic tier.

One result of that action could be higher cable rates.
Subscribers would have to pay more not only for a duplicative set of local-TV signals, but
also for a new set-top box that can display analog and digital signals on both analog and
digital TV screens.

"It would make cable more expensive ... at the time
when the FCC is worried about cable prices going up," Anstrom said, calling the
digital-basic-tier scenario "must-carry madness."

Fusing must-carry to a basic-tier-carriage mandate would
also force a shift in consumer spending: The more money subscribers need to buy basic, the
less money they presumably have to buy cable-programming services.

A National Association of Broadcasters official said that
trade group supports basic-tier carriage of digital-broadcast signals.

And Gerry Waldron, a broadcast attorney with Covington
& Burling, said his clients have not discussed whether to press for basic-tier
carriage of digital signals.

--Ted Hearn

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