Broadcasters push multicasting

Analog/digital campaign gives way to carriage wish list, including basic rights

Broadcasters have a new wish list now that they have conceded the fight for mandatory cable carriage of both analog and digital channels during the switch to DTV.

Officially, NAB hasn't retreated from its demand for dual analog/digital carriage rights during the DTV switch and wouldn't comment on the record about the new approach. But, behind the scenes, NAB members have ordered the Washington staff to pursue "legal alternatives."

Broadcasters are newly energized by FCC Chairman Michael Powell's pledge to set digital cable carriage rules for TV stations quickly and are pushing to have cable carry nearly every service that stations offer free over the air, including multicast channels, electronic program guides and data.

How far the FCC is willing to go remains unclear, but several lobbyists are optimistic that it will at least seek public comment on rules that could require cable systems to carry multicasts of several digital channels, rather than a single, high-definition one, as the FCC said in earlier, tentative decisions.

Broadcasters also are pushing for digital carriage rules that would limit cable companies' power to decide what portion of station signals they offer subscribers. Other regs that broadcasters seek would:

  • Allow stations to choose either digital or analog carriage, even when a station still offers an analog channel.
  • Require broadcast digital channels to be carried on the same tier as cable digital channels during the transition to all-digital TV.
  • Mandate digital broadcast channels on basic-cable tiers or lowest-priced pack-ages post-transition.
  • Forbid compression techniques that diminish broadcast picture quality.

"We believe strongly that statute requires full carriage of an entire bit stream provided for free," said David Donovan, president of Maximum Service Television.

The FCC reportedly aims to quickly answer questions left open since January 2001, when it tentatively concluded that mandated dual analog/digital carriage was unconstitutional. At the time, it was chaired by Democrat William Kennard, whose relations with broadcasters had soured.

The cable industry is in no mood to accept a carriage mandate for more than one channel. "Should broadcasters program cable systems?" asked Daniel Brenner, counsel for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. "We think 'primary' means one."