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Blanket Bewilderment?

3:55 PM -- It's not a full push back, but the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is nudging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) a bit as the Commission mulls whether it will adopt a so-called "blanket waiver" being sought by some small- and mid-sized cable operators ahead of the February 2009 digital TV transition.

American Cable Association (ACA) and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) are both seeking a waiver that would exempt systems with activated capacity of 552 MHz or less or serve fewer than 5,000 subscribers. (See McSlarrow Backs the Little Guys and Small Cable Lobby Asks for DTV Exemption .) Last November, the FCC voted in favor of a rule that mandates operators to deliver "must carry" stations in analog and digital format following the transition date. (See FCC OKs Dual TV Carriage Rules.) Operators can sidestep that requirement by going all-digital, so long as they ensure that all their customers have the means (i.e., digital set-tops) to view those signals on analog TV sets.

Multichannel News reported earlier this month that the FCC is considering a three-year exemption for operators with 2,500 customers or fewer from the must-carry rules, so long as those systems are not owned by Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) or (guess who?) Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK). The capacity exemption would apply to all cable systems that meet it, regardless of ownership, according to MCN.

So, what's the NAB's beef about a special rule that that would target only small cable systems or those with limited spectrum? Much of it has to do with consistent consumer messaging.

In an ex parte filed Aug. 15, the NAB "expressed concerns about the accuracy" of some cable-led DTV transition consumer education messaging if the Commission chooses to adopt a blanket waiver of its "viewability rules." The lobby argues that cable subscribers who are subject to the waiver might believe that they will have access to broadcast signals in digital format following the transition. (See NCTA Vids Spotlight DTV Transition.)

The NAB asked the Commission to "carefully consider the consumer confusion" a blanket exemption might cause, noting that additional information should be presented to cable subscribers who live in systems that are exempt from the dual must-carry rule. "At a minimum, affected subscribers who have spent large sums on HD sets to see HD signals should be warned that these signals may be down-converted into analog format pursuant to the exemption," the organization argued.

It shouldn't be long before we know whose arguments are holding sway at the Commission and how such issues will be addressed. The FCC could vote on the matter at its next open meeting, slated for this Friday (August 22). The present agenda lists an item whereby the Commission "will consider a Fourth Report and Order concerning issues related to mandatory cable carriage of digital broadcast television signals after the conclusion of the digital television… transition."

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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