Broadcasters Ask FCC to Modify Digital Conversion Plan

Nov 1, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Major TV broadcasters told the Federal Communications Commission late Friday that they might be willing to sign off on a controversial plan to force the industry to make the switch to digital by 2009. But they want the agency agrees to a variety of conditions intended to ensure that cable customers don’t lose access to broadcast digital signals.

Under the FCC’s plan, the agency is considering a proposal that would allow cable operators to downconvert a broadcaster’s DTV signal to analog at the cable operator’s headend to ensure that cable subscribers equipped with analog-only sets can continue receiving broadcast signals after the conversion.

But in their Oct. 29 letter to the FCC, the broadcasters asked the agency to make a key modification in the proposed provision to require cable operators to pass along the full panoply of broadcast DTV services to all subscribers, with the burden on cable operators to ensure that analog-only subscribers have the ability to downconvert the signals to analog if necessary in their homes.

At their option, cable operators could also choose to send the broadcast signals in both analog and digital, according to the broadcasters. “Any plan to end the transition and return analog spectrum must ensure that all consumers are able to receive, at their TV set, the full program offerings provided by free over-the-air broadcast services,” the broadcasters said, in a letter signed by a broad coalition of industry leaders, including the National Association of Broadcasters, the Big 4 TV network affiliate associations and ABC Television Network.

In the letter, the broadcasters endorsed a plan calling for the federal government to subsidize digital-to-analog converters for consumers. In addition, they said the FCC plan as submitted to Congress included a provision that would require cable operators to carry all the free services that a broadcaster opts to multicast in digital.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell has said he wants the agency to vote on the digital conversion plan before the end of the year.

In a statement, Robert Sachs, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunciations Association, said the broadcast industry proposal is a recycled version of a previous demand that cable operators be required to carry a half-dozen or more video channels per broadcast station rather than let multicast carriage be determined by markeplace forces.

“The FCC previously has held that the Communications Act only entitles broadcast stations to must-carry of a single digital video channel, and this latest broadcast submission offers no new legal justification for the FCC to reverse its position,” Mr. Sachs said. “Ironically, the broadcasters’ so-called ‘plan to complete the digital transition’ comes just weeks after broadcast organizations killed legislation that would have set a date certain for the return of the analog spectrum occupied by TV stations.

“The broadcast industry’s submission does nothing to advance the digital transition or promote a serious discussion about how to complete the transition. Meanwhile, cable operators are voluntarily carrying the digital signals of more than 450 stations that offer HDTV and other compelling digital content. It’s unfortunate that a majority of broadcasters have yet to offer any high-definition programming.”