Washington— The leader of the cable industry’s largest trade group last Wednesday rejected a tentative proposal by the Federal Communications Commission to provide cable-carriage guarantees to certain local TV stations starting in early 2009.
The FCC plan, adopted in a 5-0 vote, would allow digital-TV stations that elect mandatory cable carriage to insist on cable distribution in both analog and digital formats. The so-called dual-carriage requirement wouldn’t apply if all subscribers of a cable system have digital-reception equipment.
“Federally mandated dual carriage, as proposed in today’s notice of proposed rulemaking, is a completely unnecessary government intrusion into the marketplace. Worse, it is unconstitutional, as the FCC itself decided twice unanimously in 2001 and 2005,” National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow said. Cable thinks dual carriage would be the default outcome because millions of cable subscribers are unlikely to lease digital set-top boxes for every TV in their home.
The FCC is concerned that without dual-carriage mandates, must-carry TV stations would lose access to half of all local cable homes when the stations are required to shut off their analog signals on Feb. 17, 2009.
After the analog-TV shutoff, must-carry rights switch to the digital signal. If cable transmitted a must-carry station only in digital, analog-only subscribers would need a digital set-top box or digital-cable-ready TV set. The FCC appears to be trying to avoid forcing viewers to buy or lease digital equipment at that time.
“Without the proper policies in place, however, some viewers may be left in the dark or be unable to realize the full opportunities offered by digital technology. Such a result would be unacceptable,” FCC chairman Kevin Martin said in a prepared statement.
Cable operators have been promising voluntary dual carriage to avoid consumer disruption. But they are trying to avoid a mandate.
“We’ve committed to Congress and the federal government that we will ensure that the transition is seamless for all our customers. This commitment allows the cable operator to match its local system’s technology and carriage responsibilities to best serve the customer,” McSlarrow said.