Dual-Carriage Notice: a Wake-Up Call

Publish date:

To the Editor:

The Federal Communications Commission’s April 25 further notice of proposed rulemaking [concerning dual cable carriage of analog and digital broadcast signals after Feb. 17, 2009] is the latest alarm in a loud and persistent “wake-up” call to the entire cable industry.

If it was not perfectly clear already, this latest smoke screen brings even greater clarity to the National Association of Broadcasters’ and FCC’s frontal assault on three of our industry’s most important assets. This notice seeks our spectrum (in the form of dual carriage), our capital (with requirements for provision of free converters) and our cash (by eliminating our already paltry leverage in retransmission consent negotiations) with no attendant benefit.

The smoke screen in this particular case is the notion that millions of viewers will lose must-carry signals without a requirement for cable operators to convert these signals to analog. Chairman Martin claims “The commission has a statutory responsibility to ensure that these customers [32 million analog-only cable subscribers] are able to watch broadcast television after the [digital] transition.”

What neither the chairman nor the public notice point out is that the vast majority of cable subscribers will not be affected by a change in the must-carry rules, because very few television stations elect must-carry for their stations. Analog carriage of stations that elect retransmission consent are, and will continue to be, strictly a contractual matter outside the control of the FCC.

Therefore, since most television signals are carried in their primary service area pursuant to retransmission consent, the proposed must-carry changes will have very little effect on the ability of cable customers to watch broadcast stations.

Don’t be deceived. This notice has its roots in a terrible dilemma facing the broadcasters and the federal government: The digital-TV transition. It is widely accepted that the DTV transition, in its current form, will result in massive loss of television signals in U.S. homes — cable, satellite and over-the-air homes alike. A number of factors are involved, but the bottom line is consumers will suffer, broadcasters will lose viewers and federal legislators, regulators and bureaucrats will endure intense criticism at a politically sensitive time unless something is done to correct the situation.

A fact that isn’t as widely acknowledged is that the cable industry represents the salvation of the digital-TV transition. The FCC and the broadcasters have recently recognized this fact and are now working, and working hard, to use the cable industry’s ability to salvage the DTV transition while offering nothing in return; not even a thank you. It is time for the cable industry to wake up and recognize the same fact.

The cable industry delivers more television signals to more U.S. homes than any other medium. In fact, cable delivers signals to twice as many homes and televisions as all the other mediums combined.

The DTV transition is a once-in-a-lifetime event of seismic proportions. It is unconscionable that the premier provider of television signals is intentionally sitting on the sidelines watching this event unfold. As the leader in television distribution, cable rightfully should play an important role in assuring that the DTV transition is a success. It represents a benefit for our customers and the future of our industry. Therefore, it is vital that our industry’s leaders create, endorse and fully support a positive, balanced plan for significant participation in the DTV transition; fully accepting both the vital role we can perform and the credit that stems from that participation. Failure to do so will result in this role being thrust upon us to our great detriment.

Wake up!

Bob Gessner
Massillon Cable TV
Massillon, Ohio