Charter: Claims 'Primary' Understanding

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Charter Communications Inc. claims that broadcasters agreed with cable operators in 1986 to a policy in which operators were required to carry just one programming stream — not several — supplied by a local TV station.

The cable industry and local TV stations have taken their war over the definition of the legal term "primary video" in the digital age to the Federal Communications Commission. The outcome could lead to a carriage bonanza for digital TV stations, while perhaps causing some cable networks to lose carriage of their digital content.

The cable industry insists that "primary video" means one programming stream, an interpretation that Charter said was embodied in a 1986 agreement signed by the National Association of Broadcasters and the then National Cable Television Association.

Today, the NAB argues that "primary video" entails all free programming services within the 19.4 megabits per second digital bitstream. That could mean mandatory cable carriage for one high-definition TV signal or carriage of a half dozen or so standard definition programming streams in other day parts just from one DTV station.

According to a text of the 1986 agreement, the phrase "primary video" was not defined. But it did indicate that cable operators got to decide whether or not to carry enhancements to the "primary video," such as multichannel sound and teletext.

"Broadcasters accepted single channel must carry in 1986 as part of the must carry rules, as did Congress in 1992," Charter asserted in an Aug. 15 FCC filing.

Jack Goodman, an attorney for NAB, said Charter's filing was flawed because in 1986 no one was thinking about digital television.

"If this is the best they can come up with, it's a pretty weak argument," Goodman said. "This is an irrelevancy upon an historical footnote."

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