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Noncoms to Get Multicasting DTV Carriage

Cable operators will carry up to four digital multicast channels offered by a local public TV station under a deal brokered by the National Cable Television Association and public TV groups.

The deal is a major breakthrough, at least for public stations, on the contentious issue of digital cable carriage, which has split broadcasters and the cable industry for almost a decade.

The deal also gives the public stations another highly-sought-after prize--the right to have their digital channels carried even while still receiving carriage for their old analog signals.

“This agreement is truly historic,” said John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS). He said securing cable carriage for public stations’ digital offerings has been one of his “most important strategic objectives.”

“Our stations developed extensive plans to use multicasting to provide new programming and services that meet the educational and public safety needs of the communities they serve,” he added. “This agreement enables local stations to focus their resources on developing new digital content with the confidence that cable subscribers in their communities will be able to benefit from these services.”

Under the deal, each cable system that has upgraded to provide HDTV will carry up to four streams of free non-commercial digital broadcast programming and “associated material” from one public station in its market. Additional public stations that want digital carriage during the transition will be entitled if they shut off analog transmission and broadcast in digital-only.

After all TV stations in a market are transmitting only digital signals, including commercial ones--upgraded cable systems will add the multicast digital signals of any other public stations in their markets.

This additional carriage may include four streams of free non-commercial digital programming and associated material, subject to “reasonable” limits to prevent programming duplication parameters.

The agreement does not supersede existing pre-transitional digital carriage agreements among Public Television stations and cable systems.  The existing agreements would remain in effect until they expire.

The deal will be announced formally at NCTA’s Washington headquarters Monday afternoon and still must be approved by the boards of APTS, NCTA and PBS. 

Within 60 days of the boards’ approvals, the agreement must be ratified by public stations in markets that comprise 80 percent of U.S. TV households, and by cable operators representing at least 80 percent of cable subscribers.  The MSOs will begin carrying Public Television stations within 180 days of ratification by stations and cable operators.

There are currently 356 public TV stations in the U.S.  At the end of January, digital signals from about 100 Public Television stations were being carried by cable systems.

“Public TV for many years has been an important outlet and educational resource for millions of Americans,” said NCTA President Robert Sachs. “Cable operators recognize that public TV has been a leader in producing new and compelling digital television content.  Through the agreement, the cable industry is ensuring that our customers will benefit from the quality and creative non-commercial PTV digital content that is available today, and will be offered in the future.” 

“PBS has been building a positive relationship with cable for many years,” said PBS President Pat Mitchell. “The progress made between APTS and the NCTA in addressing the issues and our concerns is commendable.” Final action on the agreement is on the agenda of the PBS Board of Directors meeting this week, she said.

Public TV groups and NCTA touted the deal as a marketplace solution to the thorny issues of digital TV carriage. If the deal is ratified, they said, public stations and cable operators can make long-term business plans without the uncertain prospects of government rules.

Commercial broadcasters, by contrast, are on the verge of losing their long fight for government-mandated carriage of their digital signals.

NAB said Monday in a statement:  "Because of government underwriting of PBS, it's easy to see why the  cable industry was motivated to reach this tentative agreement. By NCTA's own admission, cable gatekeepers are blocking consumer access to the digital and high definition signals of more than two-thirds of all local television stations. We would hope that NCTA  and its members would reconsider their hardline position and use the [APTS] agreement as a template for negotiating carriage of commercial DTV programming."
FCC Chairman Michael Powell has asked his fellow commissioners to reject commercial stations’ bid to overturn a 2001 rule giving stations the right to carriage of only one digital signal.

He’s pushing a vote at the FCC’s Feb. 10 meeting and is believed to have the three-votes necessary to win. Broadcasters are mounting a furious lobbying blitz to have the vote postponed until after Powell leaves the commission in March.

Commercial broadcasters argue that they need guaranteed cable carriage of all the channels they can shoehorn into their DTV spectrum to make those viable businesses.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell praised the deal, saying:
"I would like to congratulate the Association for Public Television Stations and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association on their progressive digital television carriage agreement. This monumental marketplace agreement will ensure that some of the most innovative high-definition and multicast broadcast programming will find its way into cable homes across the country.

"Today's announcement serves as a testament to both the public broadcast community's commitment to driving the DTV transition and cable operators' willingness to carry compelling digital broadcast programming to its subscribers. I also want to commend Commissioners Adelstein and Abernathy on their efforts to encourage this voluntary industry agreement."

Abernathy added: "[I]t demonstrates the viability of market-based solutions."

Jeff Chester of the Center for Digitali Democracy, suggested it demonstrated the power the cable industry:

"The cable lobby's deal with PBS is also a political maneuver designed to head-off federal rules that would limit cable's programming gatekeeper power," said Chester. "In today's digital TV world, viewers should have access to a virtually limitless array of programming options.  But cable giants-like Comcast and Time Warner-- want to maintain their position to determine what consumers can and cannot see. 

Cable lobbyists hope that by befriending `Big Bird' and `Buster' they will head-off calls that would weaken their monopoly grip over the cable business (which delivers TV to almost 70% of the public)."