Washington -- Round one in the digital must-carry slugfest
went to the broadcasters. The funny thing, though, is that few people actually took
notice, and those who did weren't really sure what to make of it.
The victory was the result of some quiet legislative
maneuvering by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) on behalf of WMUR -- the ABC Inc. affiliate in
Manchester, N.H., and the state's most powerful broadcast outlet.
Two weeks ago, Gregg slipped into a multibillion-dollar
spending bill a vaguely worded provision that, according to a WMUR official, would require
cable systems in WMUR's market to carry the station's digital signal under
While designed to protect only WMUR, the Gregg amendment
could have broader application, increasing the chances that digital-TV signals will bump
analog-cable networks from cable systems in one-dozen markets around the country.
Federal Communications Commission sources who have looked
at the Gregg amendment said they were having trouble interpreting its terms.
"It's something that's puzzling. Let's
just say that there are more questions than answers," an FCC source said.
Gregg's press secretary, Ed Amorosi, said he was
unaware of the amendment and unable to discuss its contents.
"It looks so convoluted the way it was written that
it's going to have to be clarified," said Stephen Effros, president of the Cable
Telecommunications Association (CATA).
On Nov. 1, both WMUR and ABC's Boston affiliate, WCVB,
are committed to launching their digital-TV services.
WMUR and WCVB serve the same DMA . The MediaOne cable
system in Manchester currently carries both stations, although the operator is only
required to carry WMUR.
Under Gregg's amendment, if MediaOne were to carry the
digital signal of WCVB, it would be required to carry WMUR's digital signal, as well,
according to Scott Olsen, WMUR's promotions and marketing director.
"We want digital must-carry to be applied the same way
that analog is right now," Olsen said.
Moreover, if EchoStar Communications Corp., the No. 2
direct-broadcast satellite carrier, were to carry WCVB's digital signal, it would be
required to carry WMUR's, too, Olsen added.
"If EchoStar is offering [WCVB] in Manchester, N.H.,
in our backyard, [WCVB], all of a sudden, for an EchoStar viewer, becomes their local
television station. We don't feel that this is fair competition," he said.
One cable lobbyist said that although the Gregg amendment
was "a terrible precedent," it did not have wide application because of the
small number of markets in which two affiliates of one of the "Big Four"
broadcast networks were colocated.
According to the National Association of Broadcasters'
"1998 Television Market-by-Market Review," only 12 markets have two affiliates
of the same Big Four network. Among the 12 are Washington, D.C.; San Francisco;
Philadelphia; and Phoenix.
Olsen said WMUR was trying to help other network affiliates
facing identical carriage issues.
"I know full well that there are other markets across
the nation that are like [Manchester] -- probably not that many," he said.
Olsen said WMUR went to Gregg for help after looking at the
coverage maps of WCVB's digital signals and realizing that the digital feed would not
extend into Manchester as deeply as WCVB's analog signal does.
WMUR, he said, feared that if WCVB used retransmission
consent to secure digital carriage on the MediaOne system in Manchester, WMUR's
digital signal might be denied carriage until such time as the FCC promulgates digital
"We didn't want to take the chance that this
opportunity was passed up," he said.
The FCC is not expected to adopt digital must-carry rules
until after Nov. 1.
Gregg's amendment was fastened to the $33 billion
Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary appropriations bill.
Cable lobbyists said last week that they were hopeful that
the Gregg amendment would not survive when the Senate and House meet to reconcile the two