Will my cable company carry the new local multicast channels?

This is archived content from Digital TV Facts. For up-to-date information on the digital TV transition, see the federal government’s site, www.DTV2009.gov.

Cable companies are not required to carry any extra “multicast” channels—neither today, nor in 2009, when the transition to digital TV broadcasting will be completed.

Under existing “must-carry” laws, cable systems are required to set aside channels for local analog broadcast stations. As of the cutoff date for analog broadcasts, cable companies must carry local stations in digital form—one channel per station. (This applies to stations that exercise their “must-carry” rights. Commercial stations also have the right to request compensation from cable companies in exchange for carriage—a practice known as “retransmission consent.” If a consent agreement cannot be reached, the broadcaster can forbid the cable system to carry its station.)

When the shift to digital TV is complete, cable operators must carry local broadcasters’ high-definition programming in HD format (with certain caveats). Instead of broadcasting in HDTV, a local station could choose to offer six standard-definition multicast channels—which, actually, would not require any additional space (or digital “bandwidth”) to send through the cable pipe into your home. But your cable operator would need to reserve extra channel positions for these multicast programming streams, which the company’s owners may consider competitors to existing cable networks (some of which are owned by the same mega-corporations that own many cable companies).

No law compels cable owners to carry multicasts. But cable companies are free to negotiate agreements with station owners to secure slots for multicast channels. Public TV stations already have a deal with major cable systems to provide programming on as many as four digital channels, and some commercial broadcasters also have carriage agreements.

For station owners (including the broadcast networks), billions of dollars in advertising revenues are at stake. A top priority for Washington lobbyists who represent broadcasters is to pass legislation requiring cable companies to carry multicast channels. Thus far, lawmakers have resisted, and the FCC has declined to impose its own multicast must-carry rules. The cable TV industry strongly opposes multicast carriage requirements, saying they would violate the Constitution and cost them billions.

Whether viewers want such channels—perhaps in place of cable networks they currently receive—remains to be seen.

The legal justification for existing “must-carry” rules is that they serve a public purpose: to advance local programming. That said, most local stations fill their schedules with network or syndicated programming, setting aside a small part of the broadcast day for locally produced content.

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