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NCTA, Public TV Reach Carriage Deal

Washington -- The cable industry has agreed in principle to carry multiple digital services of public television stations under a 10-year agreement likely to begin taking effect within a few months.

The agreement, reached by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the Association of Public Television Stations, established carriage terms during the transition to digital-only broadcasting and after it.

The NCTA and the APTS announced the agreement here Monday, saying that it culminated 18 months of negotiations. PBS is also a party to the agreement.

The agreement, for now, leaves commercial TV stations in the cold and counting on Congress or the Federal Communications Commission to mandate multicast carriage if private talks remain stalled.

“We would hope that [the] NCTA and its members would reconsider their hard-line position and use the [APTS] agreement as a template for negotiating carriage of commercial DTV programming,” National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

Under the NCTA-APTS deal, cable operators agreed to carry all analog signals during the transition, plus up to four digital-multicast services provided by a single station in the market.

After the transition, when analog spectrum has been returned, cable operators will carry up to four digital-multicast services of each public station in the market.

However, the agreement calls for dropping multicast services if they duplicate services of another station in the market. Public stations that surrender their analog signals before the formal end of the transition may exercise their multicast-carriage rights at that point.

Cable operators covered by the agreement need systems with 750-megahertz capacity and that already provide HD programming.

To take effect, the boards of the NCTA, the APTS and PBS must approve the agreement, followed by ratification within 60 days by cable operators that serve 80% of cable subscribers and by public stations that reach 80% of TV households.

Cable operators will start carrying stations within 180 days of ratification.

NCTA president Robert Sachs said the trade group’s executive committee -- which includes MSOs that serve 90% of cable subscribers -- has already approved the deal.

The deal comes as the Federal Communications Commission prepares to vote Feb. 10 on a proposal that would bar TV stations, both commercial and public, from demanding the kind of carriage deals the NCTA and the APTS just reached on their own.

In fact, the APTS has agreed to stop lobbying for multicast must-carry. “As of today, we cease all advocacy on that question, one way or another,” APTS president John Lawson said.

The agreement won glowing praise from FCC chairman Michael Powell and commissioners Kathleen Abernathy and Jonathan Adelstein. The three are expected to form the necessary majority to kill multicast must-carry.

The NAB is lobbying the FCC for mandatory multicast carriage. Expecting defeat at the FCC, Belo Corp., a Texas-based TV-station group, wrote to congressional leaders last week calling on them to tell the FCC to cancel the Feb. 10 vote.

Also Monday, the independent affiliates of ABC, CBS and NBC asked the FCC to defer a multicast vote, partly because Congress is expected to work on digital-TV legislation this year.