NCTA Chief Fears Dual Carriage


At a four-hour House hearing Thursday, National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow said proposed digital-television legislation would effectively require the dual carriage of some TV stations on channel-constrained systems.

“As currently drafted, it is, in effect, a dual-must-carry provision,” said McSlarrow, one of 11 witnesses called to testify before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

Under a draft bill proposed by House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), broadcasters would need to terminate analog transmission Dec. 31, 2008 -- a deadline that threatens 73 million analog-TV sets that rely exclusive on free, over-the-air TV.

Letting those TV sets die would anger consumers and make the “Whiskey Rebellion look like a tea party,” said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), after noting that the bill omitted any subsidy program for digital-to-analog converters for anyone.

Barton, saying that he was firm about the 2008 deadline, nevertheless called the draft bill “an evolving document.”

Testifying on Capitol Hill for the first time since becoming NCTA president March 1, McSlarrow voiced concern about a separate provision that would require cable systems to provide all must-carry stations in analog if the system opted to downconvert even one must-carry station.

Cable operators want the authority to carry must-carry stations in analog or digital, but not both. “What we have urged is: Give us the flexibility,” McSlarrow said.

Broadcasters that rely on must-carry fear that cable operators won’t downconvert them, meaning that those stations would lose access to the majority of cable homes that do not have digital reception equipment.

In his comments, McSlarrow did not mention that Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable are planning a digital simulcast of all analog services over the next year or two, probably making the NCTA’s problems with Barton moot for those two MSOs. After buying Adelphia Communications Corp., the two MSOs would serve roughly 60% of all cable subscribers.

Nor did McSlarrow mention that cable operators could skirt the “downconvert one, downconvert all” restriction by convincing would-be must-carry stations that operators were actually interested in carrying twice to enter into retransmission-consent deals.

But the NCTA is concerned that possible downconversion of public TV stations -- which are barred from electing retransmission consent -- would trigger across-the-board dual carriage for all must-carry stations.

Cable has another option to avoid dual carriage: supply customers with digital boxes. Asked by Barton for cable’s reaction to such a box-deployment mandate, McSlarrow said, “Not positive.”