From Multichannel News:
The cable industry scored a decisive political victory Tuesday night when Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin had to dump a draconian digital TV plan that cable vowed to contest in court, perhaps rupturing the harmony needed by the industry-government effort to shift the nation to all-digital broadcast TV in early 2009 without a massive consumer rebellion.
After an 11-hour delay to the start of its monthly meeting, the FCC voted 5-0 at about 10 p.m. to require cable systems to distribute local TV stations that demand carriage in both analog and digital formats for a three-year period starting Feb. 18, 2009. Thatís the day after all 1,756 full-power TV stations must turn off their analog signals and rely exclusively on their digital feeds.
This somewhat arcane but important ruling applies mostly to smaller, independent local TV stations that might otherwise be omitted from local cable line-ups in favor of more popular non-broadcast programming. Analog "must carry" has existed as de facto law of the land, with a Supreme Court ruling backing it up, since the late 1990s. Now it is being extended to cover the potential fallout that might occur in the transition from analog to digital terrestrial broadcasting.
It's worth noting that the ruling on dual "must carry" does not appear to have any obvious impact on recent squabbles between the cable industry and broadcasters arising from broadcaster demands that cable operators pay retransmission fees for the right to deliver local digital stations to its subscribers.
Under "must carry" provisions, broadcasters have the option to declare for "must carry," in which case the cable system is legally required to include that station in its basic tier. However, those stations that do not declare for "must carry" have the option of entering into negotiations to be paid for carriage of their station signals. But if the two sides are unable to agree to terms, the cable system has no obligation to carry the station.
As a result, last night's FCC ruling is unlikely to slow the trend toward local stations demanding payment for carriage of digital signals.
But in addition to the "must carry" implications here, the FCC ruling has an important, and likely beneficial impact, for HD picture quality:
Lobbying pressure from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association forced Martin to yield not only on perpetual dual carriage but also on a second priority: Requiring cable systems to transmit "all content bits" in a digital TV signal, thereby eliminating the use of signal compression and statistical multiplexing that husband bandwidth.
What this means is that, despite National Association of
Broadcasters lobbying, cable systems will only be required to carry the
primary channel in a broadcaster's digital signal. Many local
broadcasters are keen to make use of the potential for "multicasting,"
by delivering multiple "streams" of programming (sometimes referred to
as "subchannels") as part of their digital broadcast signal. Naturally,
broadcasters are motivated by the potential additional advertising
revenue that would eventually be generated by these new programming streams.
The cable industry has consistently resisted broadcaster demands
that they carry and deliver all program streams contained in their
digital signals. The cable industry has taken this stance, partly due
to bandwidth concerns but also due to competitive issues, particularly
for cable systems that have vested interests in programming that may be
similar to some multicast offerings.
From the viewer/picture quality standpoint, the big drawback to
multicasting is that stations that employ it end up delivering a
compromised-quality HD signal. There are only so many bits available in
a digital broadcast signal, and ensuring the best possible HD picture
and sound quality requires all of them. Whenever multicast channels are
present alongside an HD channel, HD picture quality is negatively
impacted, in the form of reduced resolution or increased pixellation
during motion-heavy image sequences, or both.
The fact that the FCC has not mandated multicasting means that this
is something that will have to be negotiated and mutually agreed
between a broadcaster and each cable system. Without certainty of
carriage, broadcasters are likely to be less eager to make the
investments required for additional programming.
So, if there's no incentive to create multicast programming, there's
no need to sacrifice HD bandwidth for inclusion of subchannels. And
that hopefully translates to a clear victory for viewers who want the best
possible HD picture quality.