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Senate Bill 'Silent' On Must-Carry

Some broadcasters were smarting Tuesday at the one-two punch of 1) the absence of multicast must-carry and 2) the presence of cable downconversion provisions in the Senate version of a telecommunications reform bill.

The National Association of Broadcasters had pushed hard for a government mandate that cable systems carry broadcasters' multiple free digital channels, but NAB President David Rehr conceded two weeks ago that the votes were not there to pass it. The "silence" on must-carry, as one Senate staffer put it, made the presence of the cable downconversion portion even more irksome to the broadcast industry.

A broadcast lobby source suggested that while he would not have been surprised had neither issue been raised in the bill, downconversion without even a mention of multicasting was like a "nose thumb"--his two- word phrase was more coloful--to the broadcasting industry.

The Senate bill would allow larger cable systems to convert a TV station's must-carry DTV signal to analog for their analog cable customers for at least the next five years, and convert an HDTV signal to standard DTV for the same amount of time, though they would still have to deliver a DTV signal to their digital cable customers

Smaller cable systems would not have to deliver a DTV signal at all for five years.

Why? Money, for one thing.

The government is committed to buying DTV-to-analog converters for viewers who still have analog sets after the Feb. 18, 2009 switch to all-digital transmissions. If they have to subsidize converters for all the cable subscribers who still have analog service, the cost could balloon from $1.5 billion to over $7 billion by some estimates.

But broadcasters have argued strongly against downconversion, saying it defeats the purpose of the transition by degrading the crystal-clear pictures that DTV and HDTV deliver.

The House had cable downconversion language in its DTV transition bill, but it was stripped out when the bill was reconciled with the Senate version.

The presence of a provision allowing unlicensed wireless devices to operate in the broadcast band could not have sat well with broadcasters, either.

Both the NAB and the Association For Maximum Service Television have argued that the devices represent an interference "genie" that cannot be put back in the bottle. There is perhaps some comfort in the requirement that the FCC actively test prototypes of any such device to determine whether or not it will interfere with DTV transmission.On the plus side, the bill directs the FCC to reinstate the broadcast flag digital content protection scheme. It was thrown out by the courts as beyond the FCC's authority, but with the advice that Congress could give the FCC that authority. But even that came with carve-outs for news and public affairs and distance learning content.The NAB was still working on its response to the bill at press time. The National Cable Television Association was pleased: "The bill moves in the direction of enabling all providers to compete on a level playing field in both video and voice services, which the cable industry strongly supports," said NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow.