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Stop Looking for a Falling Sky

On Nov. 3, 2003, BROADCASTING & CABLE published a guest commentary penned by Michael McClue, senior vice president and director of engineering for Clear Channel Television. I appreciate Mr. McClue's views on the future of the DTV transition, and I share his concerns about viewers' losing their over-the-air television service. But despite Mr. McClue's self-professed Henny Penny routine, DTV must-carry is necessary to ensure a successful transition––not just a quick one. Please allow me to explain.

First, the FCC mandated that broadcasters put DTV stations into operation as soon as possible, and we have responded. Second, the FCC required consumer-electronics manufacturers to manufacture DTV receivers with over-the-air tuners, and by all accounts they will begin complying by next year. Finally, it is time for cable operators to step up and do their part to ensure a smooth DTV transition.

I believe that multicast must-carry is the next essential step in the DTV transition, but it will by no means be the final step. Congress has mandated that the DTV transition cannot end in any market until 85% of the viewers in that market can receive every local broadcaster's over-the-air DTV signal. There has been much debate about the meaning of this provision. I long have maintained that, for a market to satisfy the statutory criteria, 85% of its viewers must be capable of receiving broadcasters' over-the-air DTV signals—including their multicast offerings—via an over-the-air DTV tuner or a digital-to-analog converter. This is the only reading that fulfills Congress's twin goals of a reasonable swift transition and
a minimal amount of disruption to the current over-the-air television service. The language, the logic, and the legislative history of Section 309(j)(14)(B) dictate this result.

To the extent that multichannel subscribers (i.e., cable and DBS) are to be counted toward satisfying the 85% threshold, those viewers must subscribe to the tier of service that actually features all local broadcast signals. And those subscribers utilizing a digital-to-analog converter must possess a converter capable of displaying all formats of broadcast DTV programming, including standard-definition and HDTV.

All of which is to say that there are many miles to go before we reach the end of the DTV transition in any market, let alone nationwide. With the concerted efforts of broadcasters, consumer-electronics manufacturers, and cable operators, a relatively quick transition to DTV is still possible. Multicast must-carry must be a part of that effort. But with cable operators threatening to race to the courthouse every time multicast must-carry is mentioned, it looks less and less likely every day that the level of cooperation necessary for a rapid transition will be achieved. With so much left to accomplish, it might be best if we kept our eyes fixed forward on the tasks at hand, rather than staring upwards for falling pieces of sky.