"Let’s let the transition begin," said Commissioner Robert McDowell toward the end of last night’s FCC Open Meeting. Quite a few people would have settled for "Let’s let the meeting begin." Just 11 hours after the scheduled 9:30 am start time, Chairman Kevin Martin called the September FCC meeting to order.
The delay was apparently due to successful attempts to achieve a compromise on cellular telephone re-banding. The evening meeting brought unanimous approval of two items dealing with video services.
The Commission extended for five more years the ban on exclusive contracts by vertically integrated video providers, which the FCC staff determined "continues to be necessary to preserve and protect competition. A related Notice of Proposed Rulemaking asks whether the FCC should allow all channels to be offered on a standalone basis. Commissioner Michael Copps (D), hardly the closest friend of broadcasters, noted, however, that he did not want to inhibit the ability of broadcasters to negotiate for cable carriage of their additional digital channels. Chairman Martin made it pretty clear where he stands on the standalone idea. "I believe if you only want one channel, you should not have to take 10 or 20," he said.
In the key vote of the evening, the commissioners voted unanimously to authorize mandatory dual carriage of digital and analog broadcast signals, for at least three years after the DTV deadline of 2/17/09. Cable systems will be required to pass along both an analog and digital signal for broadcast stations (the FCC is seeking comment on whether this should apply to all stations or just stations opting for must-carry rather than negotiated carriage terms). Further, cable systems will be prohibited from degrading digital signals. If a broadcast station is broadcasting in high-def, the system must pass along high-def.
A CATV trade magazine had reported earlier that the industry had offered to submit to mandatory dual digital/analog carriage for three years, and it at least got that wish, with the caveat that the FCC will conduct a formal evaluation of dual carriage during the third year and will have the option to extend the obligation.
"This item at its core is about consumers," said Martin. The goal is that cable subscribers who watch a broadcast television station on 2/16/09 will be able to watch it again on 2/17/09. No matter what.