A new FCC will take on the fight over broadcasters' digital carriage rights.
William Kennard, in his last major act as FCC chairman, Friday rallied his colleagues to settle a host of DTV issues, but left the most controversial issue - whether TV stations are entitled to dual carriage of analog and digital signals during the DTV transition-for his successor.
The commissioners did, however, vote to endorse the current DTV technology, another controversial issue that has split the broadcast industry.
They rejected the call of some broadcasters to change the modulation method from today's 8-VSB to an alternative some broadcasters say would work better with indoor reception.
The decision follows the National Association of Broadcasters endorsement of 8-VSB two weeks ago.
"I appreciate the efforts of the broadcast industry to confirm that 8-VSB will serve the needs of American consumers in the digital age," Kennard said in a statement Friday.
The commission did, however, reject broadcasters' request to set DTV receiver standards.
The FCC also proposed to require that all sets of a certain size, perhaps 32 inches, be required to include digital tuners as a way to accelerate consumer acceptance of DTV.
Only portions of the DTV decision were announced Friday.
Details of the dual carriage decision, which Broadcasting & Cable obtained from agency and industry sources, is expected to be announced Monday.
Regarding dual carriage, which bitterly divided broadcasters and cable industry, the FCC indicated that broadcasters have a tougher burden convincing regulators that they are entitled to carriage of two signals. The more obligations placed on cable carriers, the closer the government comes to violating their free speech rights.
But rather than saying no to the broadcasters outright, the FCC asked for additional comment on whether dual carriage would truly place an unconstitutional burden on cable carriers.
In another blow to broadcasters, the FCC said that stations' carriage rights cover only a single programming channel and any associated data related to that signal, not several multicast channels.
Broadcasters argued that they are entitled to the entire bit stream of a 6 MHz channel.
The FCC's ruling would give stations the entire 6 MHz only if used for one high-definition program.
The commissioners refused, however to spell out which "program related" material is entitled to accompany a channel with carriage rights.
The debate over what constitutes program related information will be settled separately.
Broadcasters and the cable industry are fighting over the issue in another proceeding to decide whether local franchises must pass through electronic program guides.
TV stations did get some good news. The FCC said they do not need to transmit their DTV signals to their entire analog coverage area.
But commercial stations that don't duplicate their analog coverage area by Dec. 31, 2004 will lose interference protection in the uncovered portions.
- Commercial stations must chose their permanent DTV channel assignment by Dec. 31, 2003; noncommercial by Dec. 31, 2004.
- Cable operators must grant carriage to digital-only TV station WHDT-DT in Stuart, Fla., and to other stations like it. WHDT can choose to be carried in converted analog or digital but not both.
- Bill McConnell