House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) has reignited one of the bitterest fights of the transition to digital TV: whether cable operators can be forced to carry both analog and digital versions of a local station’s signal.
The renewed battle over cable carriage is just one of several disputes he must resolve before he has enough votes to pass a DTV bill though his committee, but it is likely to be the most contentious. Last week, Barton unveiled a draft of legislation that would set a “hard deadline” for the switch to all-digital broadcasting, requiring broadcasters to shut off their old analog channels Dec. 31, 2008.
Under current law, no station has to shut off analog service until 85% of the homes in its market are equipped for DTV, an open-ended standard unlikely to be completed nationwide until 2015 or later. Recognizing the need for legislation, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said his side of Capitol Hill will begin working on its version of DTV legislation after returning from the Memorial Day break on June 3.
The House bill’s cable-carriage provision could push a cable operator’s programming capacity to the limit by obligating it to carry two versions of every station in its market, a digital one and an analog one. The “dual must-carry” provision was added to soften broadcasters’ opposition to an accelerated DTV deadline.
Winning carriage rights has been little more than broadcasters’ pipe dream since January 2001, when the FCC “tentatively” concluded that making cable operators carry two versions of channels would unjustly force operators to bump some cable networks from their lineups. The FCC conclusively rejected a dual-carriage mandate four months ago.
Broadcasters insist that cable operators must carry both digital and analog signals until the DTV switch is completed, to encourage as many viewers as possible to buy digital sets now while not disenfranchising viewers who can’t afford or don’t yet want to buy a digital set.
“Allowing cable systems to 'downconvert’ to analog, as long as they also carry stations’ digital signals, will mean that subscribers with only analog sets won’t be cut off,” says Jim Yager, CEO of Barrington Broadcasting, representing the National Association of Broadcasters. “That’s good for consumers.”
Cable operators, on the other hand, say dual carriage would be a waste of their channel capacity. Rather than carry two signals for every station in town, cable operators want to provide dual carriage for top-rated stations only. Less popular stations would have to settle for carriage in one format or the other.
The cable industry thought its victory was sealed in February when the FCC rejected dual carriage. The commission also turned down broadcasters’ demand that operators carry all of the six or so “multicast” programming streams that they can cram into their digital transmissions.
Dual carriage would impose an “untenable burden” on cable operators and programmers, says Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. Barton’s legislation aims to overturn cable operators’ FCC victory by making it nearly impossible for them to deny dual carriage to any station.
To get his committee’s Democrats on board, Barton must agree to subsidize the converter boxes necessary to keep consumers’ analog sets working in the all-digital world. He has favored a minimal approach costing no more than $500 million for one box to each low-income household.
“We should not take action to shut off millions of television sets without a workable remedy for consumers,” say Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), respectively the ranking Democrats on the House Commerce Committee and Telecommunications Subcommittee.