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FCC chairman promotes post-digital TV rule

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wants cable companies to make sure that  subscribers will still be able to tune in their favorite shows when broadcasters shift to digital-only transmission.
Digital Cable
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin speaks during the Telecommunications Industry Association's Globalcomm conference in Chicago, June 5, 2006. Jeff Roberson / ASSOCIATED PRESS
/ Source: The Associated Press

Here's the pitch from the cable TV industry: One way or another, all subscribers will still be able to tune in their favorite shows when broadcasters shift to digital-only transmission in 2009.

Seeking more than a promise, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin wants commissioners to require cable companies to provide that service.

"Unless the commission acts, some cable customers may actually be harmed by the transition and lose the ability to view some of these channels," Martin told The Associated Press on Monday.

The FCC, which is scheduled to meet Tuesday, has been split over such a proposal in the past but may be moving toward a compromise.

The greatest impact of the digital conversion will be on viewers of non-digital televisions who receive their signals over the air. Beginning Feb. 18, 2009, they will be forced to buy a special converter box, subsidized by the government, to receive their channels.

The impact of the shift on the nation's cable subscribers is less certain.

Today, cable television system operators receive broadcast feeds in analog and digital format. Come Feb. 18, 2009, broadcasters must stop supplying the analog signal. That creates a problem for the cable industry's 32 million analog subscribers.

Cable operators can either convert the digital signal to analog at the point where their cable signal originates, or they can supply customers with a "down converter" device that will change digital signals to analog at the TV set.

This is essentially what the FCC wants to force the industry to do, under Martin's proposed rules.

Constitutional rights
Last week, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association launched a $200 million advertising campaign to assure customers that the shift won't affect them. "Every TV set you have that's hooked up to cable will work just fine," happy customers intone in a TV spot.

What the commercials do not say is how the industry is going to manage the transition, something that concerns Gene Kimmelman, federal affairs chief for Consumers Union. "It is astounding that they're telling their customers 'don't worry, we're taking care of you' without telling them at what price."

NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz said analog consumers will not be charged more when the transition occurs. Nor will they be forced to sign up for a more expensive digital service.

The NCTA has committed to doing what the FCC is asking, but is resisting the mandate, a position Kimmelman calls "disingenuous."

The NCTA says what the FCC is doing violates the industry's constitutional rights.

"We've said we will voluntarily take care of our customers, which is different than a government mandate," Dietz said.

Dietz said a government-ordered transition would deny the thousands of cable system operators the flexibility they need in managing the transition.

Kimmelman credited the industry with launching the ad campaign, but said the government should assume an oversight role.

"I think there are some sticks that can be placed over their heads to try to ensure that they don't take advantage of their customers," he said.