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Another Fight Over Carriage

An agreement last December between TV-set manufacturers and cable operators to build cable-ready DTV sets would not require those sets to include digital TV tuners—and some broadcasters fear that would cut them out of the loop.

On March 28, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Association of Maximum Service Television (MSTV) filed comments with commission might ratify the agreement without considering broadcasters.

"There's a base expectation of what's going to be in this device," said NAB head of engineering Lynn Claudy during a panel at the NAB convention in Las Vegas last week. "You don't want a consumer to buy a digital TV, suddenly decide he doesn't want his cable service any longer, and find out he can't get over-the-air television."

DTV: Top priority

This squabble may get attention from the FCC, but the commission is preoccupied with revising six media-ownership rules by June 2. All five FCC commissioners agreed at NAB last week that resolving several DTV proceedings is a top priority, particularly determining cable operators' DTV-carriage obligations.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell said he doesn't expect the issue to erupt into much of a battle, but Commissioner Kevin Martin said it would concern him if consumers weren't able to receive both cable and over-the-air broadcast in the same set.

Powell issued broadcasters a broader and more familiar warning last week, as they continue to slow transition to digital: "You don't have that much political room. There are other constituencies waiting for spectrum. The transition should take the right amount of time but not one second longer."

Although the transition is pressing forward with more than 800 TV stations on-line, many issues remain to be resolved.

Tuner loophole

Last August, the FCC required TV-set makers to include by 2007 digital-TV tuners in all devices that now include analog tuners, exempting devices, such as VCRs and DVD players, that do not receive broadcasts. Under the agreement hammered out between set makers and cable operators, no cable-ready digital set would have to include any tuner, creating a loophole, according to the broadcasters.

But some say broadcasters are anxious over a non-issue. Set makers are unlikely to build sets without tuners because the cost of adding them is incremental and adds to the functionality of a TV set.

"We were surprised by the broadcasters' reaction, and we don't think there's any grand conspiracy going on here," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association. Cable-industry executives said they were aware that no DTV-tuner provision was written into the agreement but they wouldn't fight over it if the CEA and NAB/MSTV conclude that one needs to be added.

Meanwhile, both Congress and the FCC are moving to eliminate some of the obstacles to completing the digital-television transition.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) says he'll introduce DTV legislation after Congress returns from Easter break. The bill is likely to include provisions that would mirror the interoperability agreement between set makers and cable operators. The bill also would include a DTV-tuner requirement, mandated by the FCC last August but being challenged in court by the Consumer Electronics Association. It also likely will have provisions that would require manufacturers to include flag technology in any copying device so that digital broadcast television could not be copied and freely distributed online.