Martin Ready To Adopt New Must Carry Rules


Washington—Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin wants the agency to adopt rules on Aug. 22 that would exempt small cable operators from certain obligations to carry local TV stations in both analog and digital formats.

The relief is expected to cover cable systems with up to 2,500 subscribers that are owned by cable companies that serve no more than 10% of pay-TV subscribers nationally—a test that theoretically includes just about every cable company except Comcast and Time Warner Cable, FCC officials said Monday.

Martin was expected to discuss the rules in greater detail in a Monday conference call with reporters. Martin has been working closely with the American Cable Association, a trade group for small cable companies, on new TV station carriage rules. Martin and ACA are also united in the cause of forcing cable programmers to sell channels to small cable companies on better terms and conditions than presently exist.

The TV station carriage relief would extend to eligible cable operators that continue to distribute programming over analog and digital platforms.

The FCC's new rules would relate to cable carriage of TV stations that demand carriage under their so-called must carry rights. Cable operators with systems eligible for FCC relief would be required to carry TV stations only in analog during the three-year exemption, FCC officials said.

Every full power TV station country has invested to upgrade its facilities to digital in order to transition to all-digital broadcasting on Feb. 17, 2009 as mandated by federal law. Cable operators with FCC exemptions will not be required to pass-through those stations’ HD signals.

Last September, the FCC said hybrid analog-digital cable operators had to carry must carry stations in analog and digital until 2012. All-digital cable systems were exempt from any dual-carriage obligation, however.

The FCC adopted the carriage mandates because it feared that millions of analog-only cable subscribers would not be able to view must carry TV stations distributed over their cable system only in digital. Meanwhile, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association had already promised a dual carriage commitment for three years, hoping to contribute to a smooth DTV transition.

Several cable programmers, including C-SPAN, have appealed the dual carriage rules in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

The FCC told that appellate court that it never adopted blanket dual carriage rules. The agency's lawyers told the court that hybrid analog-cable systems had to carry must carry signals only in analog with one exception: when the TV stations' signals were carrying HD programming.

The HD programming, the FCC told the court, had to be carried along with the analog copy because the agency’s material degradation rules adopted in 2001 said HD signals had to be passed-through to subscribers unaltered.