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Cable, Public Broadcasters Reach Multicast Agreement

In an announcement culminating 18 months of negotiations, the cable industry this week agreed to carry public broadcasters' digital multicast signals in addition to their primary HD signal.

The agreement was hammered out by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) and the Association for Public Television Stations and is expected to help create more incentives for public broadcasters to develop multicast channels, usually delivered in standard definition over a broadcasters' DTV signal.

According to the agreement, cable operators will carry a public broadcasters' analog signal, its HD signal and up to four digital multicast signals carried over a cable operators' digital cable service during the digital transition. Other public broadcasters in the same market may elect to be carried on a digital cable system if they have shut off their analog broadcasts. After all the stations in a market are transmitting only digital signals, including commercial, digital cable systems will carry up to four multicast streams of any other public broadcasters in that market.

Following approval by the Boards of Directors for APTS, NCTA and PBS, within 60 days, the agreement must be ratified by public television stations in markets that comprise 80 percent of U.S. television households and by cable system operators representing at least 80 percent of cable subscribers. Cable operators will begin carrying public television station broadcasts within 180 days after ratification. The agreement announced this week does not supersede existing pre-transitional digital carriage agreements. There are currently 365 public television stations in the U.S. At the end of January, cable systems were carrying the digital signals of about 100 public broadcasters.

Calling the agreement "truly historic," APTS President John Lawson said getting cable operators to carry public stations' digital multicast signals had been one of the most important strategic objectives of the association. "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. This digital 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," he said.

The announcement comes ahead of an expected vote by the FCC on Feb. 10 to settle what is probably the most contentious longstanding hurdle left in the DTV transition -- digital must-carry. The FCC has advocated requiring cable operators to carry broadcasters' main digital signal (along with their analog signals during the transition), but cable operators balk at the prospect of being required to carry broadcasters' secondary, standard definition multicast signals, citing bandwidth concerns. Outgoing FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who is opposed to requiring digital multicast, is attempting to get a majority vote on the commission to deny digital multicast for commercial broadcasters.

Commercial broadcasters have been furiously lobbying Capitol Hill this week to postpone the anticipated Feb. 10 decision. NAB was succinct in its response to the NCTA/APTS agreement.

"Because of government underwriting of PBS, it's easy to see why the cable industry was motivated to reach this tentative agreement," the NAB said in a statement. "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 PBS agreement as a template for negotiating carriage of commercial DTV programming."

Powell said the "monumental marketplace agreement "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."