Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin is seeking support for rules that would require cable operators, starting in early 2009, to carry so-called must-carry TV stations in analog and digital formats on cable systems that had not converted to digital-only transmission.
Martin circulated an order to the other four FCC members —two of whom are Republicans like Martin — last Tuesday. He needs two more votes to prevail on an issue that places him squarely at odds with the cable industry, which has historically opposed regulatory largesse for local TV stations in a manner that places additional burdens on cable channel capacity.
Last summer, Martin had to withdraw a different but related cable carriage order when he failed to secure a three-vote majority.
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association lobbied hard to frustrate Martin’s design, which would have forced cable operators to carry multiple digital signals transmitted by TV stations that elect must-carry. Today, FCC rules require carriage of just one programming service for each must-carry station.
The FCC’s next public meeting is Sept. 11, but no agenda has been announced. Multiple FCC officials confirmed that Martin had circulated the new cable carriage item just two business days after the agency received its last round of public comment on the dual carriage proposal — a move applauded by the National Association of Broadcasters.
“NAB appreciates chairman Martin’s timely proposal, which would prevent analog cable subscribers from losing access to some of the most diverse programming on TV, such as religious and Spanish-language programming,” NAB director of media relations Kristopher Jones said.
Martin’s proposal is tied to the congressionally mandated conversion to digital broadcasting, which requires every full-power TV station to turn off its analog signal on Feb. 17, 2009, and rely exclusively on digital transmission of its content.
Martin is concerned that without a dual carriage requirement, TV stations would run the risk of not being seen in analog-only cable homes.
According to the FCC, there are 32 million cable homes with neither a digital TV nor digital set-top box.
Although commercial TV stations may elect must-carry or bargain for carriage, public TV stations have only must-carry rights.
Large cable operators, such as Comcast and Time Warner, already distribute their lineups in analog and digital.
But operators are worried that a dual carriage mandate from the FCC would give those stations access to more cable bandwidth than they could get at the negotiating table.
Comcast told the FCC that under the agency’s current rules, a must-carry station would occupy 3 Megahertz of spectrum after the transition; under a dual carriage regime, it would occupy at least 9 MHz.
Cable’s ability to husband bandwidth could be impaired by another Martin proposal. It would ban cable operators from compressing HD signals of all local TV stations, not just must carry stations, according to a cable attorney familiar with the proposal.
Depending on the wording, the FCC’s rules could result in triple carriage of must carry stations: once in analog, once in standard-definition digital and again in high-definition digital.
Triple carriage would be necessary to ensure that a TV station’s HD programming was also viewable in homes with SD boxes.
The FCC’s proposed dual carriage regime is based on federal law stating that must-carry signals are to be viewable in cable homes. Cable has said that carriage of a digital signal alone is sufficient to meet the “viewable” standard if all the subscriber had to do was lease a digital set-top.
Martin’s proposed rules would not require dual carriage on cable systems that are digital-only on Feb. 17, 2009. But the cable industry is troubled because a national exemption would mean attaching digital set-tops to 126 million legacy analog TV sets. Assuming a $50 box cost, the price tag to avoid dual must carry: $6.3 billion.