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NAB’s Big Guns Shoot for Must-Carry

Broadcasters are deploying their top people to convince the Federal Communications Commission to require cable operators to carry every digital programming service digital-TV stations provide free to over-the-air viewers.

Earlier in the week, National Association of Broadcasters president Edward Fritts and executive vice president Marsha MacBride called on three FCC members to make the case for a multicast-carriage mandate on cable -- a regulatory proposal that cable has been fighting for years.

Fritts and MacBride were joined in the effort by NAB TV-board chairman Andrew Fisher, president of Cox Television (the sister company of which, Cox Communications Inc., happens to be the opposite side of the debate).

The NAB deployed its top guns as the FCC prepares to vote Feb. 10 on a proposal supported by FCC chairman Michael Powell that would deny digital-TV stations multicasting rights after completion of the digital-TV transition, reaffirming the commission’s January 2001 ruling on the same question.

Unlike analog technology, digital technology allows TV stations to provide a single HDTV service or multiple standard-definition signals. The NAB insisted that multicasting can’t survive economically if cable isn’t forced to carry those services.

Powell’s proposal also calls for rejection of “dual must-carry” during the transition, which means that cable would not have to carry TV stations’ analog and digital signals until the stations surrender their analog licenses.

In 2001, the FCC tentatively concluded that dual carriage violated the First Amendment rights of cable operators and programmers.

The NAB team met separately Jan. 24 with FCC members Kevin Martin, Kathleen Abernathy and Jonathan Adelstein and some of their cable and broadcasting advisers to make the case for multicast must-carry. Dual must-carry was not discussed, according to the NAB's filing on the FCC meetings.

The FCC requires cable systems to carry one programming service per digital-TV station, having interpreted the statutory term “primary video” to mean one, and not many, programming services.

The NAB argued that defining primary to mean one service was too narrow and that limiting cable carriage to less than all free services offered would kill digital-TV stations’ hopes of competing against pay TV providers that offer hundreds of channels.

“Multicasting will be stillborn, and the FCC will have resigned over-the-air television viewers to single-stream television viewing, despite the capabilities of the new DTV technology,” the NAB said in a Jan. 25 letter about the FCC meetings.

The cable industry maintained that multicasting mandates will give digital-TV stations an incentive to offer low-value content because they didn’t have to bargain for carriage.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association told the FCC in a letter Wednesday that cable systems currently voluntarily carry 504 local digital-TV stations, up from 454 in September.

These stations, the NCTA said, are largely providing “HDTV and other compelling digital content” to consumers in living in markets large and small.

“Such voluntary carriage by operators reflects real market demand, not government-mandated forced carriage. It illustrates beyond doubt the ability of broadcasters with desirable content to be carried on cable systems,” NCTA senior VP of law and regulatory policy Daniel Brenner said.

NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said the NCTA’s carriage statistics were unimpressive.

“Sadly, that leaves about two-thirds of all local broadcasters whose digital signals are being blocked by the cable gatekeeper,” he added.