In Martin’s Words: Easing the Burden

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Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin last Tuesday told American Cable Association Washington Summit attendees that cable operators with limited bandwidth did not have to retransmit the high-definition signals of “must-carry” broadcast TV stations:

I’d like to clarify a carriage issue related to the upcoming digital transition.

Last fall, the commission took an important step to minimize the potential burden on consumers posed by the DTV transition. Specifically, we issued rules implementing the statutory requirement that cable operators make every broadcaster’s signal viewable to all their cable customers. 

We were concerned that after broadcasters switch from analog to digital they would not be carried to analog homes. This outcome was problematic … because it potentially leaves 35 million of analog cable homes unable to watch broadcast television after the switch to digital. I believe that such an outcome would violate the must-carry statute’s requirement that the broadcast signals be viewable to all cable subscribers. To protect the millions of analog customers from losing their broadcast stations following the transition, the commission’s viewability order determined that downconverting the digital signal to an analog signal did not violate the material degradation provision of the must-carry statute.

All cable subscribers, not just digital subscribers, should be able to view broadcast television after the transition, just as they do today.

Moreover, and critically, that order did not increase the broadcast carriage burden on cable operators. And the order was even necessary to clarify that you were allowed to down-convert signals without violating our rule. Therefore you should have no objection to the Commission’s order.

I understand that smaller cable systems are capacity constrained. In 2001, the commission required cable operators to pass through the broadcasters’ HD signals unaltered. The must-carry statute required that there be no material degradation. And I appreciate the concern when such cable systems are unable to carry broadcasters’ HD signal, as the commission required back in 2001.

To address this real problem, I am circulating a proposal to my colleagues that would give cable systems with 552 MHz or smaller capacity an exemption from this HD requirement. Systems of this size would … automatically be relieved of the 2001 obligation to carry the HD signal.

Let me explain exactly what that means for all of you who have systems with 552 or fewer MHz.

If your system is analog-only, following the digital transition you can downconvert broadcasters’ digital signals to analog and send them to your subscribers exactly as you do today.  Let me be clear: there is no additional carriage burden. If your system has both analog and digital subscribers and your digital subscribers are able to view an analog signal, you can down-convert broadcasters’ digital signals to analog and send them to all of your subscribers exactly as you do today. There is no additional carriage burden.

If your system has both analog and digital subscribers, and your digital subscribers are unable to view an analog signal, you can downconvert broadcasters’ digital signals to analog and send them to your analog customers while making the signal viewable to your digital subscribers as you are doing today. Most likely, that is by carrying an SD feed. Again, there is no additional carriage burden.

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