Martin Floats DTV-Carriage Plan


In advance of next week’s National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin is circulating a plan that would allow TV stations to demand both digital and analog carriage from cable operators starting in early 2009, according to cable and FCC officials who asked not to be named.

In the same proposal, Martin would allow cable operators to drop the analog format if all subscribers had the necessary reception equipment to view local DTV signals. Few cable operators, however, are expected to be all-digital in time to take advantage of the dual-carriage exemption.

Martin’s plan is part of the FCC’s preparation for the Feb. 17, 2009, cutoff of analog TV service across the nation. Under current law, TV stations have the right to demand cable carriage, although the vast majority of them bargain for distribution. Martin circulated the proposal on April 4, perhaps hoping for a vote at the FCC’s next public meeting April 25. A Martin aide was tied up Tuesday afternoon and couldn’t discuss the dual-carriage proposal.

Without Martin’s proposal, a DTV station that elected must-carry after Feb. 17, 2009, would be seen in cable homes with digital set-top boxes and cable-ready DTV sets, but not in cable homes that continued to rely on analog equipment. If the analog cutoff came today, DTV stations without analog-carriage rights would lose access to 45% of cable homes.

Martin discussed his concerns about cable carriage of DTV signals one year ago in Las Vegas at the NAB's annual convention. He is scheduled to address the same Las Vegas event April 18.

Martin’s plan would hit hardest small cable operators that don’t have the channel capacity to accommodate a dual-carriage requirement. It’s unclear whether Martin is considering small operators exemptions. “I haven’t seen any favors coming from the FCC these days,” said a pessimistic Matt Polka, president of the American Cable Association, a trade group of small cable companies. Under a failed Senate telecommunications bill last year, small operators would have had the right to carry DTV in signals just in analog until 2014.

Last year, Martin said the FCC has a legal obligation to ensure that DTV signals were viewable in cable homes, citing section 614(b)(7) of the Communications Act, adopted in 1992. That provision states that local TV signals "shall be provided to every subscriber of a cable system. Such signals shall be viewable via cable on all television receivers of a subscriber that are connected to a cable system by a cable operator or for which a cable operator provides a connection.”