Must-carry back on FCC's agenda

A new proposal would transfer and expand the obligations that cable operators now have in the analog world.

On Wednesday, the FCC is scheduled to revisit the contentious issue of cable must-carry — the legal requirement that broadcasters can demand that cable systems carry their over-the-air signals.

This time, the issue before the commission is whether to allow must-carry stations to demand both digital and analog carriage, or dual carriage, during the period before every cable home in a market has the ability to receive digital signals.

If the measure, championed by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, were successful, it would kick in after Feb. 17, 2009, the date when analog television transmission is shut down. In essence, it would transfer and expand obligations that cable operators have in the analog era to the digital era.

Under current rules, a digital television station that elects mandatory cable carriage will be viewable only in subscriber homes with digital set-top boxes or cable-ready DTV sets. If the cable operator does not voluntarily offer the channel on a transitional basis in both the old and new formats, viewers without conversion equipment would lose the digital signal.

Martin doesn't want the choice left to cable operators. He argues that cable companies have a legal obligation to ensure that must-carry stations are viewable in every cable home.

Though many cable operators have already promised to provide dual carriage after the transition, they oppose Martin's initiative to expand must-carry in any way. Some fear Martin's plan would result in triple carriage: once in analog, another in SD digital, and still another in HD digital.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), cable's largest trade group, opposes Martin's plan. The organization termed the initiative "unnecessary and unconstitutional" and noted that similar moves had been rejected twice previously by a majority of the FCC.

Comcast, in a letter to FCC commissioners last week, urged a rejection of the expansion of must-carry obligations. "There is no legal or factual basis for expanding the must-carry requirements that have previously been established — which have consistently been limited to carriage in a single format of a single programming stream per broadcast licensee," James Casserly, a Comcast attorney wrote the commission.