Las Vegas -- Ensuring that every analog-only cable subscriber can view digital-TV signals is "critical" to completing a smooth transition to all-digital broadcasting in February 2009, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin said Tuesday.
Martin, in remarks to a National Association of Broadcasters convention breakfast audience here, also repeated his support for adoption of FCC rules that would force cable operators to carry multiple digital-programming services that a TV station elected to transmit.
"If a majority was willing to relook at that, I think that would be an important opportunity for us to address before 2009," Martin said in a question-and-answer session with NAB joint board chairman Bruce Reece.
After Martin offered those comments, Reece quipped: "I think that would be a good place for the TV guys to applaud."
Congress last year passed a law mandating the cutoff of analog TV Feb. 17, 2009, but many cable-carriage issues remain somewhat cloudy.
Martin seemed to be making the point that he is concerned that after Feb. 17, 2009, analog-cable homes could lose access to their local TV stations and subscribers with HD sets could receive analog signals.
"It can't be that the analog-cable subscribers are no longer going to be able to watch broadcast television because now [TV stations] are broadcasting in digital and that's only carried on the digital tier," he added.
The FCC, he said, would need to focus on cable's legal obligation to ensure that digital-TV signals are viewable in subscriber homes with only analog reception equipment.
"What is the obligation in the cable context to make sure [cable is] carrying a signal that gets to everyone's home and is viewable?" Martin said.
Section 614(b)(7) of the Communications Act, adopted in 1992, requires 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."
In interpreting the law, Martin said, "I think viewable is the key term. I think Congress passed a law and said cable operators have to make sure the broadcast signals they are carrying are viewable by everyone they are serving."
The FCC, he added, might not need to conduct a rulemaking. "I think what we will say is that it has to be viewable, because that’s what I think the statutes say," Martin said.
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association has said that if a cable operator carried a TV station in digital, it can also carry the station in analog, with downconversion of the digital signal occurring at the cable-system headend.
The NAB has said that downconversion, regardless of the circumstances, may occur only in a subscriber home, presumably with a set-top box. The NCTA prefers headend downconversion in order to avoid huge set-top-deployment costs and to permit analog subscribers to migrate to digital on their on own timetable.
In a speech Monday, NAB president David Rehr said: "We cannot let cable companies degrade broadcast-digital signals and force consumers to pay unnecessary fees to have the full benefits of HDTV."
Martin said the signal-degradation issue needed examination, adding, "If [TV stations] are putting out a very clear high-definition picture, can [cable] in some way turn that into something that isn't taking full advantage of all of the capability [broadcasters] are providing?"
Martin indicated that cable would not run afoul of the "viewable" test if it transmitted digital and analog versions of the same signal.
"It's not degrading a signal to make sure that someone can watch it who otherwise wouldn't be able to watch it. That's satisfying the viewable point," he said. "I am not sure the same thing would apply if you have a big high-definition set and [cable is] giving you a signal that you are not capable of watching on a high-definition set."
Martin did not address the carriage obligations of direct-broadcast satellite providers DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp., although current law includes provisions that call on the FCC to create rough carriage parity between cable and satellite. DBS has a couple of advantages: DirecTV and EchoStar are not required to carry local TV stations and their pay platforms are already all-digital.
Martin said the FCC would address his carriage concerns at some point, but he did not offer a precise time frame.
"I think that those carriage issues are really critical, and the commission needs to end up addressing those prior to the 2009 deadline, and I think that's really got to be our top priority if we're going to try to make this as smooth as possible for as many consumers as possible," he added.
In February 2005, the FCC voted that digital-TV stations that elected mandatory cable carriage were legally entitled to cable carriage of just one programming service on local cable systems -- a major setback for the NAB, which supported carriage of all programming services that a station could pack into its 6-megahertz bandwidth.
Martin voted against that rule in a losing cause. The majority consisted of then-FCC chairman Michael Powell and commissioners Kathleen Abernathy, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein.
"That's one of the issues that I think was a missed opportunity for the commission," he said.
Democrats Copps and Adelstein are still serving at the FCC, which is evenly divided 2-2 between Republicans and Democrats. Realistically, Martin can't revive multicast must-carry if the two Democrats remain opposed.
"I would bring it up if there was a majority of the commission who wanted to end up addressing it, but if there's not a majority, then I wouldn't," he told reporters later.
Martin indicated that multicast-must-carry mandates would have given TV stations an economic base to experiment with multiple digital services, ultimately to benefit viewers who are broadcast-only. The NAB has said the approximately 20 million broadcast-only households are not enough to justify investment in multicasting.
"[Multicast must-carry] would have provided for an increase in the number of free, over-the-air signals that would be available to someone even if they had just bought a set-top box," Martin said. "If they had just bought a relatively inexpensive set-top-box converter, they would then be able to take advantage of and see a whole bunch of other additional programs that they might not have otherwise had an opportunity to see."