It may not be law but grammar, not Congress but Strunk & White, that decides whether cable operators will be forced to carry multiple digital television signals of local broadcasters.
Cable operators, in the context of mandatory carriage laws, are required to transmit a TV station's "primary video." Last year, the Federal Communications Commission headed by then-chairman William Kennard decided that "primary" by the dictionary definition meant one video stream, not several.
But broadcasters, led by the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS), are lobbying the new FCC under chairman Michael Powell to reinterpret "primary" to mean multiple DTV streams and require cable to carry all of them.
The primary video issue takes on an importance in the digital world that it didn't have in the analog environment. TV stations can use their digital spectrum to transmit one high-definition TV signal or multiple standard definition signals.
For APTS, it all comes down to grammar.
" 'Video' is a collective noun," the group asserted. " 'Primary video' may therefore include more than one programming stream," APTS said in May 9 letter to the FCC.
On April 16, APTS representatives met with 10 FCC officials to plead their primary video case.
One meeting occurred with FCC general counsel Jane Mago and three of her deputies. Mago's legal team is expected to have a large say in whether the agency can flip-flop on the definition of primary and sustain the move in court.
Before he became chairman, Powell voted in favor of primary video meaning one signal. But last month, his chief of staff Marsha MacBride told a broadcasting group that Powell thought his decision was a bad policy outcome.
NICHE NETS LOBBY
Niche cable networks are lobbying FCC officials as well. Representatives of the Filipino Channel, The Inspiration Networks, International Channel Networks, and Outdoor Life Network met with FCC member Kevin Martin and his mass media adviser Catherine Crutcher Bohigian to argue against a change in the meaning of primary video.
"Broadcasters arguments that 'video' should be construed in its plural form has no merit in the text or legislative history of the statue," the cable networks said in letter filed with the FCC on May 3.
Under a multiple carriage regime, the cable nets said they would be the first to get bumped from cable systems. Armed with mandatory access to cable systems, TV stations might decide to market that excess spectrum to third-party programmers, the cable nets suggested.
"Broadcasters that are given more capacity than they can program themselves may try to sell capacity to nonbroadcast programmers, giving the broadcasters an undeserved windfall," the cable nets claimed.