Broadcasters Rejoin Must-carry Fray

Broadcasters are waging a last-minute campaign to persuade the Federal Communications Commission to require cable operators to carry all of their digital TV offerings whether they consist of several c

WASHINGTON, D.C. (The Hollywood Reporter) -- Broadcasters are waging a last-minute campaign to persuade the Federal Communications Commission to require cable operators to carry all of their digital TV offerings whether they consist of several channels of programming or one high-definition signal, industry officials said Jan. 20.

The push comes in response to reports that commission chairman Michael Powell is circulating a proposal among the other commissioners that would eliminate any multicast, must-carry requirement for cable operators.

"For consumers to receive the full benefits of digital and high-definition television, it is vitally important for cable systems to carry all signals offered by local TV stations," National Association of Broadcasters president and CEO Edward O. Fritts said. "NAB will continue to strongly advocate this position as the FCC deliberates this issue."

Other industry executives said the organization was urging its members to contact the FCC in an effort to derail Powell's latest proposal.

Under current law, cable operators are required to carry a television broadcaster's primary signal, but digital TV allows broadcasters to offer multiple channels, or one HDTV channel with its movie-theater-quality picture and CD-quality sound.

In 2001, the FCC ruled that cable had to carry the digital-television signal, but it only had to carry the video stream that most resembled its current analog offering. Paxson Communications Corp. and other broadcasters petitioned the agency to reconsider.

Powell is circulating a proposal that would uphold that decision and wants to have a vote at the FCC's next open meeting, scheduled for Feb. 10, sources said.

It is unclear, however, whether he has the three-vote majority on the five-member commission to win approval for the proposal. The two Democrats on the commission have been amenable to a multicast requirement, if broadcasters agree to specific public-interest requirements such as a minimum amount of educational programming. The other two Republicans have been more difficult to figure; most industry sources think commissioner Kathleen Abernathy sides with Powell, but commissioner Kevin Martin supports the broadcasters' position.

"The bottom line is that nobody really knows where the votes line up," one industry source said. "Except everyone knows that Powell opposes broadcasters."

Cable operators oppose the multicast requirement, arguing that it favors broadcast programming over cable-company-generated programming.

The FCC has been trying to figure out a way to accelerate the switch to digital TV so it can reclaim the frequencies used by broadcasters and sell them for commercial wireless services for billions of dollars.

Currently, broadcasters have to return their analog airwaves by the end of 2006, or when 85% of U.S. households can receive the new signals, whichever comes later. Given that loophole, many government officials wonder whether the transition ever will happen.

Many stations already broadcast both digital and analog signals. But relatively few Americans own digital televisions, which are expensive, and not many cable subscribers get digital service that offers those channels. Some broadcasters have reached agreements with cable operators to carry additional digital-television streams, like Walt Disney Co.'s ABC News Now.

Last year, the FCC revealed one proposal aimed at completing the digital transition by 2009 by counting toward that 85% threshold those homes that get their broadcast channels from cable, which can send subscribers the digital signals or a signal converted back to analog.

Broadcasters have expressed grave reservations about the plan because it would require them to stop airing analog signals by 2009. They have warned that millions of Americans who do not subscribe to pay-television services and have not bought a new set would not be able to see digital signals.