NCTA Scorns FCC TV-Carriage Plan

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The leader of the cable industry’s largest trade group Wednesday night rejected a tentative proposal by the Federal Communications Commission to provide new 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 homes are unlikely to lease digital set-top boxes for every TV that they own.

The FCC meeting happened at an unusually late hour, beginning at 7:10 p.m. and not finishing until 8:42 p.m. The meeting was supposed to begin at 10:30 a.m., one hour later than usual.

The FCC, which is many months away from adopting final rules, is concerned that without dual-carriage mandates, must-carry TV stations would lose access to one-half of all local cable homes when the stations are required to shut off their analog signals Feb. 17, 2009.

“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.

"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.

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, it appears, is unwilling to allow cable subscribers to access must-carry DTV signals when they feel motivated to acquire the necessary reception equipment.

The FCC also reaffirmed its view that TV stations transmitting in HD must be sent to cable subscribers’ homes in that format. Combined with a dual-carriage rule, an HD-pass-through requirement could produce triple carriage of must-carry DTV stations by cable systems. That's a legitimate threat because HD signals won't show up in standard-definition format on TV sets connected to non-HD set-top boxes.

“If consumers buy a new expensive HDTV, they reasonably expect to get high-definition signals. Thus, the commission reaffirms that broadcast signals delivered in HDTV must be able to be seen in HDTV by cable subscribers with a high-definition set,” Martin added.

Although the law prevents a cable operator from materially degrading an HD broadcast signal, the agency is seeking public comment on how to craft an objective test to determine legal compliance. The agency floated one idea of requiring carriage of “all content bits,” along with another of banning cable from treating HD cable programming better than broadcast HD signals.

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