Martin: Review Primary-Video Ruling

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The Federal Communications Commission needs to take a closer look at whether
it should order cable carriage of multiple digital-video streams provided by
local TV stations, commissioner Kevin Martin said Friday.

Last January, the FCC said cable operators had to carry only TV stations'
'primary video' signals, or one programming stream, and nothing else.

But the National Association of Broadcasters has been lobbying the commission
under new Republican leadership to repeal that decision and require carriage of
the entire digital signal that is offered free to the public off-air.

'Whether that argument [that primary video means just one signal] should
carry the day, I am not sure yet, but I think the potential benefits of a
broadened interpretation warrant further consideration of this issue,' Martin
said in a speech to the Federal Communications Bar Association.

Martin is one of the three Republicans appointed to the FCC by President Bush
who comprise the agency's leadership majority.

In his speech, Martin called on the cable, broadcast, consumer-electronics
and movie-studio industries to come to terms soon on copy protection of digital
content or expect the FCC to become more deeply involved.

He also urged the cable and consumer-electronics industries to adopt
plug-and-play standards so consumer will know that expensive digital-TV sets
will work when connected to digital cable.

For years, the NAB called on the FCC to require cable operators to carry both
analog and digital signals during the transition to all-digital TV.

But the NAB changed its focus after the FCC rejected dual must-carry, and it
decided to push the commission into adopting a broader definition of primary
video.

The NAB's proposal is that after the transition, when broadcasters have
surrendered their analog spectrum to the FCC, cable operators should be required
to carry all free services provided in the digital bit stream.

Martin seems interested in giving the NAB's proposal a new hearing.

'There may be an argument that the statutory language and legislative history
support an interpretation of primary video that allows broadcasters must-carry
rights not just for one programming stream, but for any video that is provided
for free -- consistent with broadcasters' primary purpose,' he said.

He added that the FCC should also decide quickly whether cable should carry
so-called program-related material in TV stations' digital signals, which may
include electronic program guides and interactive services.

When the FCC, under Democratic chairman William Kennard, ruled that 'primary
video' meant just one digital signal, the agency said its reading of federal law
was susceptible to different interpretations of 'primary,' and it opted to rely
on the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language for guidance in
deciding that primary meant 'first or highest in rank, quality and
importance.'

The FCC left it up to broadcasters to decide which of their multiple signals
would be deemed the primary signals.

The cable industry views mandatory carriage of all digital-programming
streams as a form of dual carriage.

A cable-industry source said cable subscribers without digital boxes would
not be able to see digital signals provided by local TV stations. In that case,
cable operators would need to convert the TV stations' main programming services
from digital to analog.

This means each TV station would occupy one 6-megahertz analog channel and
take up channel space on the digital tier for the remainder of its digital bit
stream.

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