Analog, digital a must for cable

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After a delay of nearly 12 hours, the FCC on Tuesday night approved a regulation forcing cable operators to carry both analog and digital TV channels transmitted by some local TV stations.

The delay occurred as commissioners on the five-member board did last-minute horse trading over the new "must-carry" regulation and other items on the agenda, including one strengthening 911 emergency call requirements for cell phone companies.

In the end, the FCC approved a regulation that requires cable systems to carry both analog and digital signals if the cable system uses both types of transmission. It gave small cable operators, which often depend more on analog systems, the ability to get a waiver for the requirement. The must-carry regulation will end three years after the scheduled digital switch is flipped on Feb. 17, 2009.

The commission also approved a regulation that prevents cable operators from degrading broadcasters' high-definition TV signals when they are transmitted over cable lines in digital form.

Broadcasters have long pushed for dual carriage, arguing that millions of analog cable homes would suddenly lose access to local TV signals when broadcasters make the switch to digital TV.

"If the cable companies had their way, you, your mother and father, or your next door neighbor could go to sleep one night after watching their favorite channel and wake up the next morning to a dark, fuzzy screen," FCC chairman Kevin Martin said before the vote.

The FCC estimates that there are 40 million homes and 120 million TV sets connected to analog cable.

"In the absence of the action we took today, some broadcast stations would have become unwatchable on these 120 million television sets, and millions of consumers will be disenfranchised," Martin said.

Martin and the broadcast industry contend that cable has a legal obligation to ensure that all TV signals can be viewed in homes wired to cable. Martin supports dual carriage because an analog-only home can't see a digital signal without a set-top box.

Cable operators argued that all they should have to do is let customers know that they have to lease a digital set-top box to get the must-carry stations.

The FCC's dual carriage mandate would apply only to stations that demand cable carriage, not to the 800 or so affiliates of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox that negotiate their way onto cable platforms.

In the 1992 Cable Act, Congress required cable operators to either negotiate for consent to retransmit a broadcaster's signal or carry it on the cable network, depending on the broadcaster's choice. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the retransmission consent, must-carry law.

Independent stations, TV stations owned by smaller broadcast companies and stations that broadcast in a language other than English generally demand to be carried. Public TV stations must elect must-carry.

The commission also extended regulations requiring cable companies to give competitors access to programming owned by the companies for five years. In addition, it launched a proceeding into whether cable companies violate those "program access" requirements when they distribute that programming terrestrially.

The FCC also has decided to look into so-called "tying arrangements" that allow media companies to force programmers to buy unpopular programs in order to get the ones people want to see.
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