DTV signal may be used for analog must-carry

The FCC recently ruled that an analog TV station is entitled to must-carry status on local cable systems if its DTV signal reaches the cable headend, even if its analog signal does not.

Under the FCC's rules, if a station's over-the-air signal does not have a “good quality signal” at a certain headend, the station is not entitled to carriage on that system. However, the FCC has long allowed full-power stations to qualify for must-carry by using alternate means. These include microwave hops, fiber, translators or satellite links.

A station's DTV signal may cover a broader area than does its analog signal, but for must-carry purposes, the FCC has just recently recognized DTV coverage as an alternate to analog. The station's DTV signal is picked up over-the-air at the headend, then converted to analog and transmitted on the cable system like any other analog TV signal. Cable TV operators have seen this as a form of “back door” must-carry for DTV, and have opposed it. This situation has changed as a result of the new decision.

The decision was in response to a must-carry complaint filed by a station with an analog station, as well as a simulcast DTV signal on another channel. The station demanded carriage on a particular cable system, even though there was no dispute that the analog over-the-air signal did not meet the FCC's minimum strength requirements at the cable headend.

The bureau ruled that the station's DTV signal could be used to transmit the station's programming to the headend, and qualify for must-carry, as long as (1) the programming on the DTV signal is identical to that of the analog signal; and (2) the station pays the costs of conversion equipment at the headend. The bureau also stated that this does not constitute “dual carriage” because only the station's analog signal is being carried, and only one feed of the station will be carried on the cable system. The bureau reaffirmed the current commission policy that stations with both an analog and a DTV signal are not entitled to must-carry for the DTV signal until the analog license is surrendered.

While the FCC decision may be appealed, TV stations should now consider using their DTV signals to qualify for analog must-carry, as long as they are willing and able to fulfill the simulcasting and converter-provision conditions in the new decision.

Environmental action plan

FCC Chairman Michael Powell is serious about protecting historic and environmental resources from burgeoning tower construction. Powell released a statement in May announcing his “action plan,” the agency's first comprehensive strategic plan to improve the FCC's ability to comply with the long-standing mandates of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) while simultaneously accelerating deployment of communications infrastructure, including broadcast towers.

The four basic initiatives are to increase agency expertise and modify rules as needed; improve transparency and communication with external parties; make commission processes more effective and efficient; and provide vigorous enforcement.

For years the FCC has declined to consider the overall issue of the placement of towers in or near environmentally, historically or culturally sensitive areas. While Congress has long directed the commission (and other agencies) to consider such issues in connection with their normal activities, and while the commission did, in response, dutifully adopt a set of environmental rules several decades ago, by and large the commission has shown no enthusiasm for expanding its regulatory role into the environmental, historical or cultural arenas.

Chairman Powell's “action plan” may reflect a major shift away from that historical reluctance. If the full commission follows Powell's lead, broadcasters are likely to find that the process of relocating their towers will be subject to a good deal more complication and uncertainty.

Harry C. Martin is an attorney with Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth PLC, Arlington, VA.


Stations in the following states, commonwealths and territories must file their biennial ownership reports with the FCC, and place their annual EEO reports in their public files and on their Web sites, by Aug. 1: Alaska, American Samoa, Florida, Guam, Hawaii, Iowa, the Mariana Islands, Missouri, North Carolina, Oregon, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Virgin Islands, and Washington.

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