02.10.2005 08:00 AM
Commission to decide digital multicast must-carry question

The FCC meets today to take action on the question of digital multicast must carry for cable operations.

At issue is whether the government will require cable systems to carry every channel a local broadcaster programs in its 6MHz digital allocation, or if they will be allowed to carry only the primary DTV channel offering which approximates today’s NTSC channel offering.

Broadcasters have asserted that they should be granted must-carry protection on cable systems for any digital multicast channels they offer to remain competitive. The cable industry sees any must-carry requirement beyond one covering a local broadcaster’s primary channel as an infringement on its First Amendment rights, as well as an unwanted burden on finite cable bandwidth, which could be used for other consumer services.

Oft-touted uses for digital multicast channels include news, sports and weather. In Raleigh, NC, WRAL-TV currently offers the WRAL NewsChannel, a 24-hour local news and weather source that delivers live, extended coverage of news events not covered as extensively on the station’s main channel.

Another example is NBC Universal, which launched the NBC Weather Plus network to offer local and national weather on a 24-hour basis on digital multicast channels of owned and affiliated stations. On the whole, however, broadcasters have sought regulation requiring digital must carry for multicast channels before committing resources and personnel to programming new multicast efforts.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell said he disapproves of extending must carry beyond a local station’s primary DTV channel. He reportedly has persuaded a majority of commissioners to side with him on the issue.

The seriousness of the issue for broadcasters and the cable industry was underscored over the past few days when the chairman was bombarded with letters from lawmakers, religious broadcasters, broadcast groups and the National Cable & Telecommunications.

The commission will meet at 9:30 a.m., Feb. 10, in its Washington, D.C. headquarters. The first item on its agenda is the Carriage of Digital Television Broadcast Signals: Amendments to Part 76 of the Commission’s Rules. The meeting will be streamed on the Internet at www.fcc.gov/realaudio/#feb10.

For more information, visit www.fcc.gov.

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