In Depth

Cable Suit Seek to Overturn FCC Rule on Digital Carriage

Six national cable networks, worried that a new FCC rule will lead to their signals getting bounced from local cable systems, are asking an appellate court to overturn the rule.

In a suit filed late Friday, C-SPAN, Discovery Communications, the Weather Channel, TV One, A&E Television Networks and Scripps Networks contend the new rule, which requires many cable systems to air both the digital and analog signals of TV stations, amounts to an unconstitutional mandate that gives over-the-air broadcasters an unfair advantage and takes away their free speech right.

“The Supreme Court has made it very clear that cable programmers have First Amendment rights,” said C-SPAN chairman Brian Lamb, “so it is frustrating to us and the other companies involved in this appeal that our audiences risk losing our programming and that we have to go to court just to get a fair shake from the FCC.”

The suit stems from the FCC’s attempt to ease the digital transition for cable viewers and avoid temporary problems when cable systems that haven’t fully converted to digital face the need to carry both analog and digital signals on systems that don’t have adequate bandwidth to do so.

Broadcasters have expressed concerns that cable systems unable to carry the full range of signals would drop some local analog TV signals rather than continue carrying national cable channels.

In a statement, the National Association of Broadcasters called the lawsuit “another attempt by cable interests to block a successful digital television transition.” The organization contended the suit represents an attempt by cable channels to renege on an industry commitment to preserve cable carriage of local broadcast stations to all cable customers after February 2009.

Although the cable industry has promised to carry all major local channels, in September the FCC went farther, adopting a new rule requiring cable systems who haven’t fully converted to digital as of next February’s transition date to carry both the analog and digital signals of all local TV stations. Cable networks have argued the FCC doesn’t have the authority to mandate that requirement.

The suit was filed in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.