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Broadcasters Offer Alternative to Dual Must-Carry

Officially giving up after years of fighting for dual cable carriage of local stations’ analog and digital channels, broadcasters Tuesday unveiled a new must-carry plan that would take them through the transition to all-digital signals.

Floated to the FCC by the NAB and the Association for Maximum Service Television, the plan calls for stations to have the right to demand that local cable systems carry either their old analog or their new digital signal–but not both–or to negotiate a retransmission deal for carriage of both channels.

Since digital television rules were established in 1997, broadcasters have been fighting for the right to demand carriage of both their analog and digital channels until DTV is prevalent enough for the government to reclaim the old analog spectrum.

Until now, broadcasters have insisted that without carriage of both signals during the transition they would be faced with a Hobson’s choice: either prematurely lose analog viewers before most have bought digital sets or never gain the digital audience necessary to fuel the viewership and advertising necessary to make the new technology a success.

The FCC in 2001 tentatively rejected that argument and has shown no sign of reconsidering the decision. The agency said dual carriage would likely violate cable operators’ First Amendment right to pick the programming on their systems. Broadcasters nevertheless have been vainly pleading for a reversal.

The commission, however, is actively debating cable carriage rules for the post-transition era and the broadcasters are making a last-ditch effort to win some kind of regimen that would give them a measure of leverage over digital cable carriage today. By never requiring cable systems to carry more than one broadcaster’s signal, the trade groups said the plan should allay the commission’s constitutional concerns.

Other provisions include letting stations that invoke must-carry for one type of service, negotiate cable carriage for the other; requiring cable systems to pass through a station’s digital signal to all customers equipped with digital converter boxes and downconverting the digital signal to all analog-only receivers at no extra charge; requiring cable systems to carry both signals if the ability to downconvert to analog boxes has not been implemented by Jan. 1, 2006.

"This will ensure that smaller stations and those affiliated with emerging networks or that provide specialized programming will have access to the audience for their digital programming," the trade groups wrote in a Nov. 25 letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

The cable industry immediately dismissed the broadcasters' overture as ploy because cable operators would be forced to carry analog and digital versions if must-carry of the digital channel was invoked. "NAB's latest proposal is nothing more than a back door attempt to obtain dual must carry of both the analog and digital broadcast signal," the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said in a statement.