Broadcasters are pushing a new strategy that would allegedly expedite the transition to digital television, but the cable industry calls the new plan just as bad as the old one.
The former plan — which called for mandatory cable carriage of broadcasters' analog and digital TV signals during the transition — was shelved by the National Association of Broadcasters last year.
The NAB retreated after the Federal Communications Commission in January 2001 tentatively concluded that dual carriage would violate the First Amendment, based on the current record.
The FCC also tentatively concluded that TV stations entitled to digital cable carriage — those that had surrendered their analog licenses — could expect nothing more than carriage of the "primary" video signal, or one programming stream selected by the broadcaster.
During primetime, some broadcasters plan to use their digital spectrum for high-definition TV, a format that typically uses the entire 6 MHz of spectrum allocated to each TV station.
During other dayparts, some TV stations want to experiment with multiple programming services. The dynamic nature of digital broadcasting makes such multiplexing possible in ways the analog format did not.
RULING HIT HARD
The primary video ruling stung broadcasters to a greater extent than the defeat on dual carriage. The NAB complained that experimentation with the digital spectrum would be frustrated if cable customers could not receive more than one digital video signal from a local TV station.
In recent months, NAB lobbyists have been building a case to get the FCC to reconsider its position that primary video means just one signal.
Reduced to its essentials, the NAB would stop demanding dual carriage in exchange for an FCC rule that required cable systems to pass through the entire 6 MHz of digital spectrum — whether it contains one or multiple signals — after TV stations had returned their analog allocation.
The NAB's offer might be attractive to the FCC, which hungers to auction recaptured analog-TV spectrum to wireless telephone providers.
It is unclear how NAB's plan would benefit non-cable subscribers who have not purchased digital TV sets by the time analog service is terminated. The post-transition fate of non-cable households has been an ongoing FCC concern for many years.
No matter how hard broadcasters push, the FCC might have difficulty escaping from its original decision.
Under chairman William Kennard, a Democrat, the FCC ruled that "primary video" meant just one digital signal. At that time, the agency said 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."
Nevertheless, commissioner Kevin Martin indicated the FCC's definition of primary video may have been too narrow, though he did not advocate consulting a different dictionary.
"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 Feb. 1 speech to the Federal Communications Bar Association.
Martin is one of the three Republicans in the FCC majority appointed by President Bush.
NAB: FCC ERRED
Dennis Wharton, the NAB's spokesman, said a more liberal interpretation of primary video was essential if broadcasters are to maximize the potential of their digital spectrum in a manner that cable subscribers can enjoy.
"It's our contention that the FCC erred in its tentative conclusion that only the primary video ought to be carried," Wharton said. "If a broadcaster wants to start a 24-hour news channel to compete with [Cable News Network] and offer it for free as part of its second program stream, that's the type of thing you would think the FCC would want to encourage."
Wharton insisted the NAB had not thrown in the towel on dual carriage, even though the trade group's television board of directors last November ordered its staff to "seek new and innovative ideas, including single versus dual carriage options."
Said Wharton, "We have not changed any position from wanting full must-carry for both analog and digital. What we've said is that if certain conditions are met, we would reconsider our position."
Broadening the definition of primary video to include mandatory cable carriage of multiple broadcast signals would alarm the cable industry. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association considers the NAB's effort on primary video as potentially worse than dual carriage.
Under current FCC rules, if a cable operator is required to carry just one digital signal from a local TV station after the transition, that signal could be downconverted to analog format so all cable subscribers can receive it.
In that case, the digital TV signal would occupy 6 MHz of spectrum — the same amount as an analog signal.
Downconversion would require the permission of the TV station, but such permission would likely be granted because carriage on the digital tier would limit the TV station's exposure to only those cable subscribers with digital boxes.
Yet, if all cable subscribers have a digital set-top attached to all TV sets, the cable operator can transmit the one digital TV signal to all subscribers and probably, through compression techniques, utilize even less than 6 MHz.
Only about 14 million cable households have at least one digital box, and full digital set-top penetration on every TV in a given home is many years away.
For that reason, the cable industry views the NAB's demand for carriage of multiple programming streams after the transition as a likely bandwidth hog.
A cable operator that still had a large analog base and is required to carry multiple digital video streams from a TV station would have to allocate a 6-MHz analog channel for each video stream.
Instead of looking at setting aside two 6-MHz channels under dual must-carry, cable operators fear they'll have to set aside between 30 MHz and 36 MHz for each local TV station that plans to multicast in digital.
"Seemingly, six megahertz of digital [spectrum] could turn into 36 megahertz of analog, assuming they had six programming streams," said NCTA spokesman Marc Osgoode Smith.
Digital Box Burden
Or cable operators could negate that huge claim on their analog channel capacity by requiring consumers to buy or lease digital set-top boxes, an expense subscribers might not want to shoulder.
"You are talking billions [of dollars], and this assumes you are providing one box to one set, not to every set in the house," Smith said.
The NCTA stands firm in its view that the law requires cable operators to carry one programming stream from a local TV station — either analog or digital — but no more than one. Carriage of additional programming streams should be the result of business negotiations, the NCTA said.
"What we continue to advocate is marketplace negotiations and market-based solutions for the rest of broadcasters' possible services," said Smith. "If our customers want them, it would be in our interest to provide them."
Relying on FCC testimony from an AT&T executive a few years ago, Wharton said cable has ample channel capacity to accommodate all local TV services provided to the public for free.
"According to their own lobbyist before the FCC, cable has infinite channel capacity and they are going to be dying for more channels," Wharton said. "When someone asked him about local broadcast signals, he realized that he had stepped in deep doo-doo and took the Fifth Amendment."