Must-carry must wait

The FCC isn't ready to settle the big issue of whether cable systems are obligated to carry both the analog and digital signals of local TV stations, but it is gearing up to settle key side issues surrounding the digital tug-of-war between broadcasters and cable systems.

Next month, FCC Chairman William Kennard wants commissioners to establish non-duplication rules for network and syndicated digital programming and to spell out how broadcasters will negotiate channel positions and elect carriage under retransmission consent or must-carry rules.

Drafts of the DTV rulings were circulated to the commissioners late last week. Although there's no guarantee they'll be on the final agenda, the move tees them up for the Dec. 7 meeting.

Also in the works is a proposal to require all sets 13 inches and larger to carry both digital and analog tuners by 2003 in order to speed the transition to all-digital broadcasting. The FCC also plans for the cable industry to conduct a study of its channel capacity to find out whether local systems have the capacity to carry both the analog and digital signals of TV stations. Stations do not have to cease analog broadcasts until 85% of U.S. homes have DTV receivers.

The commissioners are also being asked to decide WHDT , Stuart, Fla.'s, demand for basic analog carriage on the local Comcast system, even though the new station will be digital only. Industry sources said it remains unclear how the commissioners would rule.

Broadcasters have long been calling for DTV receiver mandates, but set makers oppose the proposal. Last week, Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro said the plan would "penalize" consumers by adding up to $300 to the cost of every set. "Broadcasters have yet to provide plentiful HDTV content," he wrote in a Nov. 14 letter. Instead, he wants the FCC to set high-definition-programming quotas for broadcasters.

Ordering the channel-capacity study, FCC clearly is far from settling the broadcast industry's controversial demand for carriage of both signals during the transition to digital-only transmissions, industry sources said. The FCC has continually postponed deadlines for resolving the question, which undoubtedly will result in a federal lawsuit from the losing side.

As for the non-duplication and other technical rules for digital-channel carriage, the National Association of Broadcasters complained that settling some rules now would lessen pressure to resolve the dual-carriage issue. But the cable industry says no rules should be set until the transition nears completion, maybe 10 years from now.

But FCC officials say settling these channel-carriage details will help stations negotiate digital-carriage contracts and speed the transition from analog.