NAB Unveils New DTV-Carriage Plan


TV broadcasters have unveiled a new digital-TV-carriage plan that would deny cable systems the unfettered freedom to convert digital-TV signals to analog at the headend in order to protect consumers without digital sets or set-tops.

The proposal, floated late Friday by the National Association of Broadcasters, clashed with recent digital-TV-transition proposals advanced by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which is trying to avoid loading huge equipment costs on cable subscribers during the phase-out of analog transmission.

NCTA officials recently told the Federal Communications Commission that cable systems, and not TV stations, should have authority to downconvert digital-TV signals at the headend until digital-equipment penetration -- either set-tops or digital-TV sets -- have reached 85% of TV households.

The NAB’s proposal new proposal to the FCC would mandate that by the end of the transition, cable systems would be required to transmit digital-TV signals from the headend to consumer homes.

After that threshold had been met, the NAB would leave cable two choices: Either provide set-tops to consumers with analog-TV sets or send downconverted analog signals to satisfy subscribers with analog sets who do not want set-tops.

“Thus, any plan to end the transition and return analog spectrum must ensure that all consumers are able to receive, at their TV set, the full program offerings provided by free over-the-air broadcast service,” the NAB said.

The NAB added that TV-spectrum-auction proceeds should be tapped to defray the cost of conversion equipment for analog-only consumers.

FCC staff wants to end the transition Dec. 31, 2008. At that point, TV stations would elect whether cable carried their signals in analog or digital. The plan would not force cable to provide set-tops to analog-only consumers.

The NAB is evidently concerned that if cable isn’t forced to provide digital-TV equipment, downconversion at the headend would occur by default, so that even consumers with digital-TV sets would not receive digital pictures from the cable company.

“Consumers who have invested in digital sets -- an investment that the government has sought to encourage -- should not face uncertainty as to whether after the transition, they will be able to receive HDTV and other digital services from their cable system,” the NAB said.

The NCTA wants the authority to downconvert because the inability to serve analog-only consumers would require installation of conversion equipment -- a process the group has called potentially disruptive for “tens of millions of cable customers.”

“The latest FCC filing by the broadcast industry is simply a recycled version of broadcasters' previous demands that cable operators be required by the commission to carry a half-dozen or more video channels per broadcast station rather than letting multicast carriage be determined by market competition with other program networks,” NCTA CEO Robert Sachs said in a prepared statement.

“Ironically, the broadcasters' so-called plan to complete the digital transition comes just weeks after broadcast organizations killed legislation that would have set a date certain for the return of the analog spectrum occupied by TV stations,” he added.

Sachs continued, “The broadcast industry's submission does nothing to advance the digital-TV transition or promote a serious discussion about how to complete the transition. Meanwhile, cable operators are voluntarily carrying the digital signals of more than 450 stations that offer HDTV and other compelling digital content. It's unfortunate that a majority of broadcasters have yet to offer any high-definition programming.”