The Deciders

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Cable operators have agreed to make sure that when the time comes to pull the plug on analog broadcasting, none of its analog cable subscribers will lose access to any of their TV signals. It was valorous for cable to offer such a boost to the DTV transition.

Thus, after some arm twisting and compromise that wore out the carpeted path to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's eighth-floor office, the FCC last week, working with broadcasters and cable operators, agreed to require cable to provide “dual carriage.” (Broadcasters call it a “viewable signal.” Jeez.)

Chairman Kevin Martin had wanted an open-ended dual carriage mandate. But when cable made its voluntary offer, that approach carried the day. The resulting dual carriage agreement does come with a three-year sunset instead, though the commission gets to review it and extend the time period.

It was never in cable's interest to start dropping channels it had been delivering to its paying customers, though cable operators would argue that few viewers were watching some of those channels and the bandwidth could be put to better use. They have seen forced carriage as a violation of their First Amendment rights as well as a Fifth Amendment prohibition against the government seizing property.

But, Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) also saw the need to help cable customers make the transition to digital., In fact, the NCTA has since at least 2005 offered to voluntarily carry signals in analog and digital in a deal first struck on the Hill, then derailed.

So, although cable operators would have preferred no mandate, they can live with it. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) would have preferred the dual carriage arrangement to become permanent and wanted a tighter rein on how cable delivered its signal, but you can't have everything.

Three years from now, this decision will be hailed as a watershed moment by the broader television industry. Last week, in fact, the regulatory process worked like it ought to—except that it took an incredible 11 hours for the FCC to get on to the same “we can live with it” page.

We were again last week reminded that in Washington, no trade organization or regulator wants to admit defeat. Oddly though, this seemed like a time that all of them have had the rare ability to declare an act of deliberate cooperation, not that that stopped all the name calling. In the nation's capital, more divided than ever, maybe no one remembers that arriving at a common sense agreement is really the way government is supposed to work.

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