Must-carry not yet a must at FCC

Digital decision doesn't make it onto this week's agenda

Believe it or not, digital must-carry still isn't ready for prime time. Despite FCC Chairman Michael Powell's determined effort, he and his three fellow commissioners have yet to agree on how to settle the longstanding debate over cable carriage of broadcasters' digital TV signals. As a result, they won't take up the issue at the commission's public meeting this week.

Nevertheless, Powell is expected to push negotiations in hopes of issuing a proposal before November's meeting. When approved, the mandate would determine the primary business relationship between broadcasters and cable systems for the foreseeable future.

Although the FCC is widely expected to conclude that broadcasters are entitled to cable carriage of the entire free portion of their signals, still up in the air is how strongly worded that conclusion will be. In an effort to win consensus, Powell had moderated a proposal that would have left little doubt the commission considered mandatory carriage of all free programming the way to go but would have sought comment on the constitutionality of that decision. Even a less definitive version failed to win the necessary three votes.

With full carriage unresolved, the debate over which cable tier digital programming must be carried on was shelved.

One decision that looks solid: The FCC will reject broadcasters' demand for carriage of both digital and analog signals during the transition.

In a positive for broadcasters, however, the FCC appears set to forbid cable companies to diminish the quality of a station's digital signal. Some broadcasters worry cable systems will degrade signals offered in the highest-quality, 1080i format or other high-resolution formats.

At this week's meeting, the FCC is also expected to kick off a comprehensive rewrite of the broadcast-ownership limits.

Broadcasters were left frustrated by the commission's failure to resolve the carriage debate. They say full carriage of their digital offerings, including multicast channels and electronic program guides, is necessary to push the government-mandated transition from analog signals.

The burden on cable systems posed by full digital carriage is much less today, they say, than when Congress ordered carriage of all local stations in their markets in 1993. "It's almost an insignificant burden. Yet there's holy war," said Jack Goodman, an attorney for the National Association of Broadcasters.