Public TV prods FCC on must-carry


To breath life into the broadcasters' hopes for dual analog/digital cable carriage requirements, public television organizations this week asked the FCC to phase in must-carry obligations based on market size, the availability of digital signals and a cable system's channel capacity.

The groups also asked the FCC to change broadcasters' DTV rollout deadlines by basing them on nationwide penetration of TV sets with digital receivers and market size rather than on the fixed dates used currently.

A cable system's dual carriage requirements would go away when the number of subscribers owning DTV sets rise to a set level and digital-to-analog set-top converters become affordable. To limit the number of cable networks bumped from carriage because of broadcasters' dual carriage, system operators' digital set-aside amounts initially would be less than the 33% of capacity now required for analog broadcasts.

America's Public Television Stations, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting Service submitted the plan to the FCC June 11.

Although the groups did suggest specific market sizes and penetration levels necessary for the requirements to take effect, the groups said those levels are little more than starting points for discussion. "We're not presenting this as the answer, but we hope to get people looking at this in a new way," said a CPB spokeswoman.

The proposal, is meant to revive broadcasters' chances for digital must-carry mandates after the FCC in tentatively concluded in January that digital dual carriage would violate cable systems' property and free speech rights.
According to the public broadcasters' plan, dual carriage would be required of systems with 750 MHz of capacity in all top-30 markets and in other markets where two or more DTV stations are on the air. Affected systems serving two-station markets must offer dual carriage when any one station launches DTV. Cable systems that do not upgrade to 750 MHz must offer dual carriage one year after stations in their market otherwise become eligible. Cable operators meeting the FCC definition of small systems would be exempt from dual carriage.

The public broadcasters also recommended dropping current DTV rollout dates - May 2002 for a commercial stations and May 2003 for public and non-commercial outlets. Instead, public stations, top-30 market commercial stations without major network affiliations, and commercial outlets in smaller markets must go digital no sooner than one year after a nationwide digital tuner penetration level is reached. Affiliates of the Big Four networks have been required to offer DTV since at least Nov. 1999.
- Bill McConnell