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FCC Proposes $11M In DTV Education Fines

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin revealed Wednesday that the commission is planning to propose approximately $11 million in fines against seven cable and telco multichannel video providers for not sufficiently informing their viewers about the DTV transition.

He is also floating a proposal that would mean broadcasters who opt for must-carry would not be guaranteed carriage on the basic tier, though it would be left for a future commission to adopt or reject.

That came in a meeting with reporters about the agenda for the FCC's next public meeting Dec. 18.

As expected, he will also propose creating a DTV translator service to help TV stations fill in the gaps in DTV service given changes in coverage area from analog.

Martin is also proposing an order on program access that would put a six-month shot clock on program access complaints, saying it was to address complaints of independent programmers about getting carried.

Martin also wants to issue a further notice of proposed rulemaking (which is less than an order, more than an inquiry), asking whether the FCC should adopt new rules that prevent programmers, cable, satellite or broadcast, from dictating channel placement.

That way, he said, it would allow programmers to charge what they wished, but operators could place them in a different tier than expanded basic if they chose to do so. He said some operators had suggested to him they would be able to lower cable prices if they had that freedom.

He also said the proposal asked if the same rule should apply to broadcasters who opt to negotiate carriage for their signals.

As it is, broadcasters must provide broadcast stations on the most basic level of service. That directive would still apply to stations that opt for must-carry, he said.

It is just an inquiry, Martin reiterated. But, "it asks should these same rules apply to broadcasters who are electing and wanting to charge consumers as well."

Cablevision, one of the operators backing the rule change, weighed in Wednesday on the proposal: ""Cablevision strongly supports Chairman Martin's efforts to put out for public comment this significant proposal, which would allow programming distributors to have the flexibility to develop innovative packages and enhance customer choice and value," the company said in a statement.  "Cablevision believes this proposal would benefit consumers, is important for the future of the industry and should be issued for comment by the Commission."

Martin would not talk about the proposed DTV education fines or companies-sources say they do not include broadcasters--saying he has gotten in trouble before for talking about upcoming enforcement actions. Martin did say that failing to inform customers about the DTV transition in their billing statements was "one of the violations."

On a retransmission consent quiet period around the DTV transition date of Feb. 17, Martin said that he is still not sure the FCC has the authority to mandate and said he was "still hopeful" broadcasters and cable operators might be able to come to a resolution on their own on a reasonable date they could both agree on.

Broadcasters want an approximately four-week window, while cable operators want one that starts at the end of this year and extends a month or so past that date.

The issue is whether broadcast signals being pulled from cable would confuse folks into thinking it had something to do with the DTV switch rather than broadcasters and cable operators failing to come to terms on carriage.