P’casters hook up

Cablers org reaches digi must-carry deal

WASHINGTON — In a deal that leaves network affiliates in the cold, the cable industry may have found a way to avoid much-dreaded governmental intervention in the contentious debate over digital must-carry.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. and the Assn. of Public Television Stations unveiled an agreement Monday in which NCTA members will carry up to four digital multicast channels offered by a local pubcaster.

The transition from analog to digital, which is hoped to be completed by 2009 although the Federal Communications Commission has yet to set a hard date, has sparked a dispute between broadcasters and cable operators over the number of broadcast channels a cabler must offer. Analog signals can only send one channel, but digital can carry several (multicasting).

The FCC ruled in January 2001 that cable operators only had to carry one channel from a digital multicast. However, arguing that to be economically viable in the digital age, commercial broadcasters claim all their channels must be carried on cable, and have thus pressed the FCC to reconsider and force cablers to carry more.

Monday’s deal between NCTA and APTS marks the first agreement hammered out on the issue.

APTS prexy John Lawson said, “Our agreement with NCTA means that the digital programming streams of every public television station in America will be carried on every major cable system in America.”

Robert Sachs, NCTA prexy, emphasized that the agreement, 18 months in the making, demonstrated no need for governmental intervention in the must-carry dispute.

“I think it is fair to say that both sides recognized the benefits of resolving very complex digital TV issues through private contractual negotiations rather than having the government dictate the terms of cable carriage,” Sachs said.

FCC chairman Michael Powell also hailed the deal. “Today’s announcement serves as a testament to both the public broadcast community’s commitment to driving the DTV transition and cable operators’ willingness to carry compelling digital broadcast programming to its subscribers,” he said. “I also want to commend Commissioners (Jonathan) Adelstein and (Kathleen) Abernathy on their efforts to encourage this voluntary industry agreement.”

Reconsider ruling

The FCC is scheduled to vote Feb. 10 whether to reconsider its 2001 ruling. Powell wants to let the market sort things out, and the NCTA-APTS agreement supports his position. Commercial broadcasters are campaigning to postpone that vote until Powell has left the FCC in March.

The agreement must be ratified by NCTA and APTS within 60 days to become effective. Sachs and Lawson fully expect that will happen.

NCTA is not negotiating with commercial broadcasters for a similar agreement. “There isn’t any unity among commercial broadcasters in what they want,” Sachs said.

Meanwhile, the National Assn. of Broadcasters, which represents radio and television broadcasters, released the following statement: “Because of government underwriting of PBS, it’s easy to see why the cable industry was motivated to reach this tentative agreement. By NCTA’s own admission, cable gatekeepers are blocking consumer access to the digital and high-definition signals of more than two-thirds of all local television stations. We would hope that NCTA and its members would reconsider their hardline position and use the PBS agreement as a template for negotiating carriage of commercial DTV programming.”

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