NCTA Pans Martin’s DTV-Carriage Plan

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The National Cable & Telecommunications Association Wednesday panned a proposal by Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin on cable carriage of local digital-TV signals after the end of the DTV transition in February 2009.

Martin’s proposal would allow DTV stations that elect mandatory must-carry to insist on both digital and analog carriage on cable systems that had not converted to an entirely digital platform. The proposal is designed to ensure that some local TV stations don’t lose access to analog-only cable homes because of the analog-to-digital conversion mandated by federal law.

“This plan appears to conclude that the digital-TV transition can be solved by disenfranchising millions of customers by forcing them to rent a set-top box they may not want, and it will in fact cost more because the [FCC] has refused to repeal its $600 million-per-year set-top-box tax that begins in July,” NCTA vice president of communications Brian Dietz said.

Cable operators can avoid the dual-carriage requirement by forcing millions of customers to lease digital set-top boxes, but that is both expensive and risks a consumer backlash.

Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of media relations at the National Association of Broadcasters, gave the Martin plan a conditional thumbs-up. At various times, the NAB has strongly endorsed FCC-mandated dual carriage.

"Based on press accounts of this plan, this sounds like a very positive proposal. We look forward to learning more about the initiative,” Wharton said.

In the past, the NCTA has argued that a dual-carriage requirement would violate cable’s First Amendment rights. Martin himself did not support a dual-carriage proposal before the FCC in February 2005, one month before he became chairman.

However, Martin has endorsed a policy called multicast must-carry, which is forced cable carriage of multiple programming streams made available by a single TV stations. Digital technology allows TV stations to beam four or five programming services -- a vast improvement over analog technology, which accommodates one programming service per station.

An FCC source and a cable-industry source familiar with Martin's plan said multicast must-carry isn't addressed in Martin's current proposal.

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