WASHINGTON — Broadcasters that expect cable to carry multiple digital-TV signals need a new law, because Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell says he can't help them out.
Even though the TV-station lobby has applied enormous pressure in pushing their view that "multicast" signals should receive cable carriage, the FCC decided in January that the law guarantees carriage of just one broadcast signal. The decision means broadcasters must bargain with MSOs over the carriage of additional TV-station signals.
"It was our sincere belief that we did not have that flexibility in the way the statute was written," Powell told the House Telecommunications Subcommittee on March 29. "I will tell you that many of us believe that it might be a viable way to provide services, but [the FCC] simply had to remain faithful to the statute."
Digital transmission allows TV stations to provide one or two HDTV signals — and perhaps five or six standard-definition signals — via one 6-megahertz channel. About 185 TV stations now broadcast in digital format. All 1,288 U.S. commercial TV stations must start transmitting digital signals by next May.
Paxson Communications Corp. introduced six off-air digital signals in the Chicago market, but the FCC shot down the company's request for cable carriage of its entire package: one analog channel and five digital-tier channels.
Questioned about the FCC's approach by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), Powell said the agency could not require cable carriage of more that one channel because the law limited must carry to a station's "primary video signal."
Powell acknowledged that a company such as Paxson could not depend on the FCC to fulfill its digital business ambitions.
"It is going to limit at least one pliable business opportunity to effectuate the transition, at least with the government right to access," Powell said.
NEEDS 'STATUTORY CHANGE'
Stearns said that it looks like TV stations — especially independents and affiliates of emerging networks — might not have the clout to bargain with cable for carriage of multiple digital signals.
"They might not be able to," Powell said. "And I think if that's a critical desire for transition, then statutory change would be warranted."
Congress set Dec. 31, 2006, as the deadline for TV stations to return their analog spectrum. But that time frame is nullified if less than 85 percent of households in a market are incapable of receiving DTV signals.
Capitol Hill lawmakers are concerned because they want the FCC to reclaim the analog spectrum and auction it to wireless phone carriers, which can then use it introduce mobile Internet applications.
At the same time, neither Congress nor the FCC wants to take that spectrum back from broadcasters prematurely — and effectively deny access to free, over-the-air television to millions of Americans because they have not purchased digital receivers.
"I have made no secret that I believe 2006 has always been an extremely optimistic assessment of 85-percent penetration," Powell said. "I am bullish about DTV. I think it's a great service. I think consumers will embrace it. But I do think it will take longer than we had imagined."
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the subcommittee's chairman, offered his opinion that the 2006 deadline would not be met. He then asked Powell what steps the FCC could take to speed the process.
Powell noted that the FCC reaffirmed support for the DTV transmission standard — 8 vestigial side band — and assured broadcasters of guaranteed cable carriage for their digital signal after the transition.
Beyond that, Powell said, industry cooperation and consumer acceptance must pave the way toward a successful transition.
"The first thing we need to recognize is that most of solutions are out with the industries and in the marketplace, and not in government," Powell said. "It requires the coming together of multiple industry segments, some of which are competitors."