THE SWITCH TO DIGITAL TELEVISION

Facts for cable customers

• WILL LOCAL CHANNELS BE DROPPED?

[IMPORTANT UPDATE: An FCC rule, adopted September 11, 2007, will allow continued access to local stations for cable customers—including those with standard analog cable service—following the transition to digital TV in 2009. For details, see FCC eases DTV transition for cable subscribers.]

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Broadcasters tremble at the thought of losing access to cable subscribers, of course—especially since only about 15 percent of today’s viewers still watch TV over-the-air, using an antenna.

Television station owners and networks have grown dependent on cable and, to an increasing extent, satellite TV services to deliver audiences to their advertisers. That’s why major stations in many localities are likely to sign agreements with cable systems allowing their digital signals to be downconverted to analog.

Without such retransmission agreements, cable companies will be forbidden by law to offer analog feeds of local broadcast channels.

Fate of independent stations is unknown

Cable TV companies know their customers don’t want to lose access to affiliates of the four major networks. But what about smaller stations with more limited audiences? Will they have sufficient clout to negotiate agreements preserving their access to analog cable viewers?

That’s an open question.

Remember, cable operators like Time Warner hold ownership stakes in popular cable channels like CNN, HBO, TNT and Cartoon Network—channels that compete with local stations for viewers or advertising dollars. Independent stations, without the draw of network programming, could be at particular risk of being bumped from analog cable systems.

When the nation shifts to digital TV broadcasts, another controversial provision of the digital TV law passed by Congress means cable customers are unlikely to have access to some new programming services offered by local stations.

Next: New local ‘multicast’ channels: Are you missing out? »

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Related:
Local digital stations via cable: FCC muddies waters

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