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FCC to Issue Must-Carry Ruling

In a decision that could have a giant impact on the future availability of digital TV signals, the FCC will rule Tuesday, Sept. 11, on what pieces of the broadcasters’ signals cable operators will be required to carry.

Broadcasting and cable interests have been squaring off for months with visits and filings to the commission. NAB and its allies have long argued that cable operators should carry all program streams, while cable operators have argued against the FCC proposal that stations carry HD, SD and analog signals (what cable calls “triple must-carry”). They say the proposal is unconstitutional and would come at the expense of other programming and services preferred by viewers.

Broadcasters have also attacked a new $200 million information campaign announced by the cable industry assuring viewers that cable can keep them from losing their analog television signals in February 2009. (See related story in this week’s TV Technology News Bytes.)

Sept. 6, NAB and the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) showed the FCC some cable industry ads and noted that just as cable announced its “education” initiative, cable lobbyists were campaigning against the very requirements that would ensure continued analog carriage.

“The American public understands that, as long as they subscribe to cable, they will continue to receive broadcast signals when they wake up on February 19, 2009,” the groups wrote the FCC. “That understanding is directly at odds with the plans the cable industry has articulated to the commission.”

Representing small cable operators, the American Cable Association told the FCC it would be technically and financially unfeasable for all small and medium-sized cable operators to carry every local station’s HD, SD and analog signals.

According to the ACA’s filing with the FCC, a small cable operator would have to invest $143,500 in equipment and labor to pass along seven must-carry stations’ HD, SD and analog streams—or $26,500 for the signals of just one station. That cost could be reduced if broadcasters downconverted their HD signals to SD before delivery to cable providers; carrying six stations’ SD and analog signals only would cost an operator $65,000, ACA said.

NAB also says the FCC should adopt an objective standard for measuring material degradation of DTV signals. Cable interests have said such rules would prohibit commonly used compression techniques.