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Broadcasters, cable skirmish over DTV multicast must-carry

Broadcast and cable interests have fired their opening salvos in what promises to be an intense battle over possible legislation requiring cable system operators to carry all broadcast DTV multicast channels.

Following its August recess, Congress is expected to move forward on legislation that will set a date for cessation of analog television transmissions. As part of the process, lawmakers will decide whether or not to impose new must-carry requirements on cable systems. Currently, cable operators are required to carry only broadcaster’s primary channel — not any of their multicast channels that may be part of their DTV offerings.

As part of its legislative push, the NAB has unveiled results of a new study showing the financial benefits of multicast DTV carriage by cable systems. In addition, NAB released a survey finding that 85 percent of TV stations intend to create additional local program streams if Congress passes pro-multicast DTV legislation. The NAB's survey revealed that nearly 80 percent of TV stations are unlikely to create multicast local program streams without cable system carriage assurances. Additionally, NAB introduced its newest ad that will be appearing in Capitol Hill publications stressing the importance of multicast must carry.

Association president Eddie Fritts said multicast carriage for DTV channels is “not a capacity burden” for cable operators and pointed to comments from FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who has stated that cable operators would have "significantly less" burden carrying digital broadcast programming than analog TV programming given advances in digital compression technology.

However, the cable industry sees the issue differently. Ninety cable networks signed on to a letter to Congress Sept. 12 urging lawmakers to reject proposals for new must-carry requirements. The group argued that they compete for cable and satellite distribution based on the quality of its offerings. “Broadcasters already have a government-granted competitive advantage over all other programmers,” the letter said referring to existing must-carry requirements. Expanding must carry rights would “undermine our ability of compete” and result in “harm to programming diversity and to consumers,” the letter said.

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