DTV-only station wants cable slot

Florida start-up asks FCC to mandate carriage on basic

A Florida TV station that will launch digital-only operations has thrown a new twist into the fight over the cable industry's carriage of local broadcast signals.

Whdt, a new station which will operate on ch. 59 in the West Palm Beach market and only broadcast in digital, wants the local Comcast franchise to carry the station's signal in its basic tier. Station officials say that carriage on the analog tier is necessary for survival and they are entitled just like other local broadcasters that happen to have an analog allotment.

Comcast is refusing to carry whdt's signal, say attorneys for the station's owner, Guenter Marksteiner, so the station is asking the FCC to issue a declaratory ruling in their favor. Comcast says it hasn't decided one way or the other.

Last week the FCC asked for industry comment on the dispute. Comments are due Aug. 4; replies Aug. 18.

Cable industry officials oppose whdt's request, deriding it as a niche programmer's attempt to force its way into an already crowded analog tier. "To us it seems pretty crazy for a channel that will not have popular programming to get in line in front of networks like Oxygen that have been trying to get on analog for two years," says Daniel Brenner, general counsel for the National Cable Television Association.

But whdt's attorney says the station, while it will offer international news from the German network Deutsche Welle, is more than a niche service. "Whdt is going to be a standard TV station with local programming, international-based programming, syndicated programming, and movies," says Paul Feldman, whdt's Washington lawyer. "That's far from a one-dimensional cable channel."

Whdt desperately wants to avoid having its request get sucked up into the long-running fight to decide whether cable operators must carry both a broadcaster's digital and analog signals during the transition to all-digital signals and whether they must offer all the signals of DTV stations that plan to multicast several channels.

But whdt may be indulging in wishful thinking about avoiding the the high-stakes must-carry debate. Although it's true that whdt so far is the only station to win approval to broadcast digital-only and just one similar application is pending (for kidn ch. 54 in Los Angeles), more than 30 new licensees were granted single-channel allotments last summer.

These stations, like whdt, were granted single channel allotments because their licenses were granted after the April 3, 1997, cut-off date for dual analog/digital allotment eligibility. Although these 30-plus stations have the right to launch service in either analog or digital, many may never actually offer an analog signal because of the lag time in constructing facilities and a government mandate to go digital no later than 2002.