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DTV transition: New hitch for some cable viewers?

November 20th, 2007

For customers of small cable companies, the road to digital TV could get bumpier if seven senators can persuade their colleagues to overrule an FCC decision.

Federal regulators simplified the DTV transition for consumers in September, announcing that cable systems will be required to carry local stations in both analog and digital form after traditional analog broadcasts cease on February 17, 2009. The rule has an exception: Operators of small cable systems will be granted waivers—but only if they can prove their case to the FCC.

Now five Republicans and two Democrats are proposing “a blanket exemption for systems with less than 552 MHz of capacity or with 5,000 or fewer subscribers,” according to Multichannel News. This could complicate matters, albeit slightly.

Let me again emphasize that in the switch to digital broadcasts, most cable subscribers have little to fear: they will continue to receive local channels, as usual, via cable. But if small-town cable companies are exempted from the FCC requirement, their customers may suddenly require digital cable service, along with a digital cable box, to continue receiving all local stations on a standard analog TV, the kind most of us grew up with.

The FCC is indeed, as the senators contend, putting some low-budget, low-bandwidth cable systems in a bind. Until the commission releases the text of its actual order, though, it is difficult to say just how steep a hurdle the affected cable operators face in getting a waiver.

While the FCC’s “dual carriage” plan is a boon to broadcasters, some viewers won’t be happy with the results. Devoting two channel slots to each local station will likely have the effect of squeezing out some cable networks, especially on the smallest systems.

Remember, too, that the local stations the FCC is protecting—those that elect “must-carry” status—tend to be weaker ones anyway. (If a station is popular enough with viewers, it can usually negotiate a carriage agreement with the cable company, assuring its continued access to subscribers’ television screens under “retransmission consent” rules.)

In the worst case, the unfortunate customers of Joe and Mabel’s Bait and Cable of Bad Dog, WY, would be forced to give up Comedy Central to make room for channel 46, with its endless lineup of home-shopping shows and She’s the Sheriff reruns.

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