FCC sends signal on must-carry

B'casters, cablers tuned in for long-awaited vote Tuesday

WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators will vote Tuesday whether to approve a requirement -- long-sought by broadcasters -- that would force cable operators to carry analog and digital TV signals transmitted by some local stations.

The dual-carriage requirement pushed by FCC chairman Kevin Martin is intended to ensure that millions of analog cable homes don't abruptly lose access to local TV signals when U.S. broadcasters make the switch to digital TV in 2009.

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, whether that home is on an analog or digital system. Martin supports dual carriage because an analog-only home can't see a digital signal without a set-top box.

Cable operators argue that all they should be required to do is to carry the digital signal, as long as customers are informed that leasing a digital set-top box will bring in the must-carry stations.

While the cable industry opposes Martin's plan -- and has threatened court action if it is approved -- the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn. has offered a compromise. Under the industry trade group's plan, most cable operators would carry both analog and digital signals for three years. There is another plan circulating that would extend the timeline to five years.

Broadcasters are unsure of the proposals, expressing concern about loopholes, but one top executive said Monday that they weren't rejecting them outright.

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 Supreme Court upheld the retransmission consent, must-carry law.

The network affiliates generally elect retransmission consent because they have the power to cut a deal with the big cable outfits.

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.