THE SWITCH TO DIGITAL TELEVISION

Facts for cable customers

• WILL YOU GET THE NEW LOCAL MULTICAST CHANNELS?

[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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Thanks to digital TV, each local station can now provide multiple channels of separate programming—a practice known as multicasting.

While it provides improved images and sound, digital TV also manages to use the public airwaves more efficiently—so efficiently, in fact, that your local station can broadcast not just the single channel you’ve always had, but as many as five additional channels.

(High-definition broadcasts require transmitting much larger quantities of information, however, leaving little spectrum left over. During HDTV programming, a station is limited to providing just one or two additional programming streams.)

Multicast carriage: It’s up to cable companies

Cable operators are not required to carry the new multicast channels. When the transition to digital TV broadcasts is completed, cable companies will be required by law to carry a single “primary” feed from each local station.

Station owners want Congress to force cable systems to carry their multicast programming. Lawmakers have thus far resisted the broadcasters’ demands, which are strongly opposed by the cable TV industry. Some stations have negotiated carriage agreements with cable companies to gain channel slots on their systems.

What are you missing without the multicast channels? In some cases, just a whole lot of weather reports. But other stations are becoming more ambitious, particularly PBS affiliates.

Conclusion: How cable customers can prepare for the switch to digital TV »

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Local digital stations via cable: FCC muddies waters

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