In the coming months, digital technology will allow each of the nation's local television stations to broadcast several channels each instead of just one. But cable and satellite customers may not see them: Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that local cable companies are under no obligation to carry all of the new channels.
Broadcasters had asked the government to force the cable companies to carry the extra signals, known as "side channels," which can add six or more channels per station. Television stations -- such as WRC-4, Washington's NBC station -- have paid as much as $10 million each to convert their broadcast signal from analog to digital, as the government has mandated, and say they have little incentive to put programming on the new channels if they cannot be assured they will be seen on local cable systems.
But the cable industry said it deserves the freedom to pick and choose the channels that best serve its customers.
"After a thorough review, the FCC has reaffirmed that cable providers should have the right to determine the mix of programming that will best serve their diverse customer base, and that government should not make that choice for them," Comcast Chairman Brian L. Roberts said in a prepared statement. He said his system is adding new channels on its own, as its customers demand.
The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents more than 1,100 of the nation's local television stations and several chains, said they would fight yesterday's FCC decision in federal court.
"In Washington, there are no final victories and no final defeats," NAB President Edward O. Fritts said in a written statement. "We look forward to the fight, because consumers deserve more."
The decision left some local broadcasters wondering about the future of the new channels. Michael Jack, WRC general manager, pointed to his station's new digital weather channel, which airs on Comcast Channel 227 in Montgomery County and soon will be available to cable subscribers throughout the Washington area. The channel originates with NBC, but WRC inserts constantly updated local weather reports into the national feed.
Jack plans more locally oriented side channels in coming months but now is unsure they will be seen.
"There is a ton of local things that we could have done that now perhaps we cannot do," said Jack, whose station has a news-sharing partnership with The Washington Post.
The FCC has asked all broadcasters to switch to digital by 2009, but no deadline has been set. Congress is exploring setting a deadline. In addition to making more channels available, the move to digital offers improved picture and sound.
Only Commissioner Kevin J. Martin dissented from yesterday's ruling. "I think the public would benefit more from more free programming," he said in a written statment.
Martin said numerous television stations have said they want to use the new channels for local sports and weather, government proceedings, and foreign-language programming.
"Yet, with carriage rights for only one stream, these broadcasters cannot support all of this additional programming," Martin said.
The other four commissioners disagreed, saying that even though the Supreme Court upholds the government's right to force cable companies to carry the primary signal of local television stations, requiring cable systems to carry additional channels would probably fall to First Amendment challenges in the courts.
"Broadcasters provide a valuable service to the American people, and their voice remains one government should work to preserve," FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell said in a prepared statement, "but it simply is not the case, in our judgment, that an expansion of carriage rights are necessary for their survival, or to preserve diversity and localism."