Washington—A pair of House lawmakers is concerned that a cable operator carriage dispute involving 15 LIN TV stations could be confusing consumers about the DTV transition and putting artificial demand on the federal government's $1.5 billion converter box coupon program.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Ca.) and Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) expressed their concerns in letters Wednesday to Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin and Assistant Commerce Secretary Meredith Attwell Baker.
The lawmakers specifically referred to LIN TV's decision Oct. 3 to pull signals in 15 markets from the cable systems owned by Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, impacting about 1.6 million cable subscribers combined.
They added that it was possible that cable homes in those markets reacted by seeking $40 DTV converter box coupons from the federal government, which they probably wouldn't have done if the cable operators continued to carry LIN's stations.
"It is concerning that some of these coupon requests could come from confused Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers who might not need converter boxes, and very likely would not have applied for coupons but for the fact that LIN TV's broadcast signals were dropped," Eshoo and Deal said.
Both Eshoo and Deal support a so-called quiet period, mandated by the FCC, in which no TV signals could be pulled. Their quiet period would start before Dec. 31, 2008 before thousands of current carriage contracts expire.
Although four FCC members have agreed to seek public comment on various quiet period dates, Martin has so far refused to join them, despite expressing general support for a quiet period in House testimony in September.
The National Association of Broadcasters, however, has endorsed a one-month voluntary quiet period that wouldn't begin until Feb. 4, 2009, a proposal rejected by National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow as meaningless because of the post-Dec. 31 start date.
“Broadcasters have embraced a voluntary, pro-consumer quiet period that will ensure no cable subscriber loses access to broadcast programming in the weeks leading up to and following the transition to digital TV,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said in a statement. “If policymakers are truly concerned about confusion that could arise from the DTV transition, they should investigate claims raised by Consumer Reports magazine alleging cable operators' use of the transition as a subterfuge for deceptively upselling consumers into higher programming tiers.”
The national DTV transition is scheduled for Feb. 17, 2009, requiring all full-power TV stations to turn off their analog signals and rely exclusively on their digital signals.
“We applaud Representative Eshoo and Deal’s continued efforts to urge the FCC to adopt a meaningful retransmission consent quiet period to ensure that no consumer loses a broadcast signal in the critical months before the broadcasters’ February 17 digital TV transition,” McSlarrow said in a statement. “Many retransmission consent agreements expire at the end of 2008; the NAB’s proposal to commence a quiet period only in early February 2009 therefore is nothing more than a hollow gesture. The digital transition will be challenging enough without burdening consumers with ill-timed retransmission consent disputes.”
Eshoo and Deal asked Baker, who also heads the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, to provide market-specific data to help determine whether an "uptick" in demand for coupons was related to the retransmission consent disputes.
"To the extent a disproportionate increase in requests for coupons is seen in the areas where broadcast signals were pulled, we believe this to be evidence in support of our concern that station blackouts resulting from broadcast carriage disputes in the months before and after the transition would lead to confusion among consumers, particularly those with the pay-television service," the lawmakers wrote.
NTIA, which is supervising the converter box coupon program, has funding for 33.5 million coupons, and 12.1 million of them have been used by consumers as of Oct. 15.
LIN TV pulled its stations off Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks systems in Austin, Texas; Buffalo, N.Y.; Columbus, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Green Bay, Wis.; Indianapolis; Mobile, Ala.; Springfield, Mass.; Terre Haute, Ind.; and Toledo, Ohio.
Time Warner said 1.5 million of its subscribers are affected, while 106,000 Bright House customers are impacted in Indianapolis.
LIN TV is seeking a 30-cent license fee for its stations. Time Warner Cable says it doesn't want to pay for broadcast signals that are available for free over the air.
-- MCN’s Linda Moss contributed to this report.