The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote next Wednesday on a proposal that would allow TV stations to demand digital and analog carriage on cable systems until the systems had transitioned subscribers to a digital-only platform, according to FCC officials and cable-industry sources familiar with it.
FCC chairman Kevin Martin is seeking majority support for yet another plan controversial with cable’s largest trade group, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Last summer, Martin failed in his quest to force multicast must-carry on cable -- a mandate that would have required carriage of every free digital-programming service that TV stations can pack into their 6-megahertz allotments, or 4-6 channels based on current technology.
If adopted, the new Martin plan would kick in immediately after Feb. 17, 2009, the date mandated by Congress for all full-power TV stations to rely exclusively on digital transmission.
The five-member FCC, where Republicans hold a one-vote majority, is scheduled to hold its monthly public meeting April 25. According to a meeting agenda released Wednesday night, the agency is slated to adopt a notice of proposed rulemaking that contains Martin’s digital-TV-policy preferences regarding cable carriage. Final rules -- which cable can seek to overturn in court -- probably wouldn’t be announced for another year.
After Feb. 17, 2009, a TV station’s mandatory cable-carriage rights would transfer from the analog to the digital signal. Without a government guarantee of analog-cable carriage, a digital-TV station that elected mandatory carriage would be viewable only in cable homes with digital set-top boxes or cable-ready DTV sets. If the transition happened today, a must-carry station would lose nearly one-half of its cable audience.
Based on his view of federal cable law, Martin believes cable operators have a legal obligation to ensure that must-carry stations are viewable in every cable home. The proposal before the FCC is to allow must-carry stations to insist on digital and cable carriage -- or dual carriage -- until every cable home in a market has digital-reception equipment.
Many cable operators -- which are probably many years from being exclusively digital -- have promised to provide dual carriage for must carry stations on a temporary basis so that subscribers don’t lose access to local TV programming.
But cable operators fear that Martin’s interventionist approach could result in triple carriage -- once in analog and twice in digital (standard and HD), because millions of standard-definition set-top boxes can’t display an HD picture in SD.
“It always surprises me when people take them up on what they say and get upset by it,” said Alan Frank, CEO of Post-Newsweek Stations. “What's the problem? If they’re going to do it anyway, why is that a problem?”
To avoid analog-carriage mandates, cable operators could outfit all subscriber homes with digital set-tops. But that’s a costly option that cable companies, for now, prefer to see their customers embrace on their own timetable.
“The cable industry is a longtime champion of the digital-TV transition and has repeatedly assured Congress that we will continue to deliver broadcast signals to all customers after the February 2009 transition and dedicate significant resources to educate all consumers about the upcoming transition," NCTA vice president of communications Brian Dietz said in a prepared statement."Cable operators already carry hundreds of local broadcast high-definition signals as a result of marketplace agreements and not government mandates," he added. "The FCC’s current proposal appears to mandate an unnecessary and unconstitutional carriage requirement that has already been overwhelmingly rejected twice by the FCC. Instead of reaching premature conclusions that force expensive new costs on consumers, the FCC should approach the transition in a collaborative way that will not unfairly tax millions of Americans.”