The National Association of Broadcasters has apparently retreated from its longstanding position that cable operators are required to carry both analog and digital TV signals during the transition to digital-only broadcasting.
A one-page statement issued last Thursday said that NAB staff, as instructed by the trade group's Television Board of Directors, has now been charged with "aggressively seek[ing] new and innovative ideas, including single versus dual carriage options."
For years, the NAB has claimed that the law required cable operators to carry both analog and digital signals. But in January, the Federal Communications Commission tentatively concluded that dual carriage was neither required nor barred.
As a result, the agency demanded more evidence that the imposition of dual carriage would not violate the First Amendment rights of cable operators and programmers.
A broadcast industry source indicated that the NAB wanted to show it was flexible on dual must-carry, but didn't want to drop the idea.
"We are not abandoning dual must-carry," the broadcasting source said. "We are willing to consider a change in that provided certain conditions are met. The NAB board has given NAB staff some flexibility to get a deal."
The NAB said it has committed to a speedy transition and the return of broadcasters' analog spectrum to the FCC, as well as an overall process that protected the interests of consumers.
The NAB TV board also told the lobby group's staff to "pursue innovative solutions" to three additional goals: the inclusion of DTV tuners in every new TV set; compatibility between DTV sets with cable systems; and "full carriage" of broadcast digital signals on cable and satellite systems.
The last goal is apparently NAB's way of saying that cable operators should be required to carry not just a TV station's primary digital signal, but also all digital TV content contained within the 6-MHz channel.
The cable industry opposes carriage of more than the primary signal. The FCC said cable operators were required to pass through only one video stream, along with any "program-related" content.
The FCC is still determining the scope of its "program-related" mandate.
A broadcast industry source said NAB's plan was designed to put the burden of helping with the transition on the cable industry.
"Cable can't play the four-corners stall indefinitely on this," the broadcast industry source said.
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association said in a statement: "We are encouraged by the NAB's desire to seek 'innovative' solutions to expediting the digital broadcast transition. The cable industry believes that marketplace, not government-mandated solutions, consistently achieve the best results. We stand prepared to work with all parties, including the NAB, on consumer-driven solutions to the digital broadcast transition."
The NAB is apparently going public with its plan based on signs that the FCC and Congress have shown greater interest in the digital transition. The agency has organized a DTV task force and House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) held at least one closed-door meeting on the subject with key participants.
All 1,300 commercial TV stations are required to beam a digital signal by next May; about 30 percent of stations are expected to miss the deadline.
The NAB says about 200 stations are presently transmitting a digital signal.