Carriage plan makes rounds at FCC

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Six months ago, broadcasters' chances for new digital-carriage rights during
the digital-TV transition appeared dead. Not anymore.

So far, commercial broadcasters have been silent on a plan pushed by
public-TV organizations that would force large-market cable operators that
expand their capacity to carry broadcasters' digital channels in addition to the
analog channels they already carry.

But a Federal Communications Commission source said the industry is backing
the noncommercial stations' idea privately because nonprofit public-TV outlets
draw more sympathy than the National Association of Broadcasters' lobbying
might.

Nearly every relevant FCC office has now been briefed on the plan, and
chairman Michael Powell is taking a hard look.

The plan was crafted by Covington & Burling attorney Jonathan Blake, who
also represents commercial stations on digital-TV and ownership issues.

In another plus for TV stations, the FCC would establish a level of
digital-TV-set penetration below which broadcasters would be allowed to delay
their digital rollouts.

Resurrecting any version of dual analog/digital carriage proposals is
anathema to the cable industry, which appeared to have scored a huge victory in
January when the FCC tentatively concluded that digital-carriage requirements
would be an unconstitutional violation of cable systems' free-speech rights.

Responding to the proposal, National Cable & Telecommunications
Association spokesman David Beckwith said: 'The PBS proposal is based on the
erroneous assumption that 750-megahertz cable systems have infinite channel
capacity. If that were true, there would no debate, because cable operators want
to offer consumers the greatest choice of programs.'

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