Filings Fly Over Digital 'Some-Kind-of-Carriage'

Despite reports that the FCC will not take up digital must-carry at its regular Dec. 17 meeting, the parties involved aren't taking any chances that the agency won't pull off an unscheduled ruling, as it did with the broadcast flag.

Cable concerns continued to chant their "primary video" arguments in answer to the "either/or" proposal filed last week by the NAB. The either/or option would allow a broadcast station to elect must-carry for its analog or its digital signal, but not both. The NAB lobbied long and hard for must-carry for both analog and digital signals, i.e., dual must-carry, but as multicasting services take shape, the objective is now "carriage of bits." The broadcast lobby contends that must-carry grants broadcasters the same amount of cable bandwidth for digital signals as it does for analog. The heart of the either/or proposal is actually contained in a footnote:

"This letter deals only with the issue of a transitional carriage rule and does not alter in any way broadcasters' arguments that cable systems should be barred from stripping parts of the free broadcast service that over-the-air DTV viewers will receive. Regardless of whether a digital signal is carried under must carry or retransmission consent, therefore, all non-subscription bits in the over-the-air signal must be delivered intact to cable subscribers without any degradation."

Filings from Sony and Capitol Broadcasting added gravity to the NAB's argument. Sony reiterated its support for mandatory inclusion of the ATSC's A/53B and Capitol lobbied for PSIP -- both of which convey programming information to keep DTV pictures from looking like postage stamps on home sets, among other things. In order for a program information standard such as PSIP to work properly, the entire bitstream of a channel must be protected, Capitol's filing said.

Cable operators say, no way. The cable lobby immediately replied that "the FCC should adhere to its January 2001 ruling that interpreted 'primary video' to mean a single digital video program stream," and, for good measure, that "the Commission should not grant broadcast stations must-carry rights for their digital signals until the stations have returned the analog spectrum that they use."

Never one to miss a PR opportunity, Court TV weighed in with a 41-page filing, 13 pages of which dissected the either/or proposal; the rest consisting of press releases describing the networks programming and public service campaigns.

The DBS lobby offered its two cents, even though the must-carry provisions under consideration would not likely apply to satellite television providers. In a filing of about 100 words, the DBS lobby group, the Satellite Broadcast Communications Association, simply said, " the position of SBCA is that rather than the Commission impose a forced multicast must-carry regime on DBS operators, the decision to carry multicast material should be based upon consumer demand and market forces."

Consumer lobbyists also stepped up their arguments that broadcasters be held to more stringent public service requirements before any sort of expanded must-carry is considered. One group, the New America Foundation, urged the commission to make digital must-carry contingent upon date-certain return of analog spectrum.