NCTA: Reject Broad DTV Carriage Mandates

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Washington  -- Television stations are entitled to mandatory carriage of a single programming service — and not before they’ve surrendered their analog spectrum -- the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said last week.

In a Feb. 3 letter to federal regulators, NCTA president Robert Sachs said broadcasters’ demands for broader carriage are simply unauthorized by law, forbidden by the First Amendment and contrary to sound public-policy goals of moving all TV stations to digital transmission.

Sachs told the Federal Communications Commission that the NCTA’s position today is no different from the one taken by the agency in January 2001 -- that carriage of analog and digital signals during the transition and carriage of multiple DTV signals, as opposed to just one service, after the transition would wander from what the law requires and violated cable’s editorial protections under the First Amendment.

“Nothing in the voluminous record amassed by the [FCC] since that time warrants reversal of either of those decisions,” Sachs said in the four-page letter.

The FCC is expected vote Thursday to support cable’s position. Republicans Michael Powell and Kathleen Abernathy are expected to vote with Democrat Jonathan Adelstein to provide the necessary three votes to deliver a major policy setback to the National Association of Broadcasters.

The NAB has backed away from pressing for dual carriage during the transition as its primary objective. A few years ago, the trade group began to emphasize multicast must-carry after the transition, or the idea that cable should carry every programming stream that a DTV station offers free to over-the-air viewers.

The multicast debate centers on the FCC’s interpretation of the statutory requirement that cable carry each TV station’s “primary video.”

In the analog world, less was at stake because the technology limited a TV station to one programming service per 6-MHz allocation. But in the digital context, DTV stations can cram five or six programming services in the same amount of bandwidth occupied by a single analog channel.

In 2001, the FCC voted 3-2 to interpret “primary video” as one programming service and ruled that cable would be required to carry that service after the transition.

“This remains the only interpretation that is consistent with common and ordinary usage of the term ‘primary,’ ” Sachs said.

NAB and other broadcasters have argued that defining the word primary to mean one instead of many is not consistent with the common usage of the word primary, citing the term primary colors as an example of primary being used in the plural, not the singular.

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