Material Degradation – Sections 614(b)(4)(A) and 615(g)(2)
The Communications Act requires (1) cable operators to carry local broadcast signals “without material degradation,” and (2) the Commission to “adopt carriage standards to ensure that, to the extent technically feasible, the quality of signal processing and carriage provided by a cable system for the carriage of local commercial television stations will be no less than that provided by the system for carriage of any other type of signal.”14 As noted above, Section 614(b)(4)(B) of the Act directs the Commission “to establish any changes in the signal carriage requirements of cable television systems necessary to ensure cable carriage of such broadcast signals of local commercial television stations which have been changed” as a result of the transition from analog to digital broadcasting.15
In the 1998 NPRM, we solicited comments to determine the extent to which this provision precludes cable operators from altering a digital broadcast station signal when the transmission is processed at the system headend or in customer premises equipment.16 Some broadcasters argued that a digital signal would be materially degraded if it were not transmitted to the viewer in the format that the broadcaster intended. Other broadcasters sought to preclude cable operators from blocking or deleting any of the bits constituting the broadcast material. The First Report and Order concluded that cable operators are required to ensure that consumers with DTV equipment (e.g., Digital-Cable-Ready sets17 or DTV-ready sets connected to an HDTV digital cable set-top box) are able to view the digital signal in its original format – e.g., in high definition (“HD”) if delivered by the broadcaster in HD.18
As noted above, we previously determined in the First Report and Order that a broadcast signal delivered to the cable headend in HD must be carried in HD in order to comply with the prohibition on material degradation.19 We continue to require such carriage and reiterate that requirement. We now propose revisions to the material degradation requirements set forth in the First Report and Order with respect to carriage of bits in the broadcast signal.20 Specifically, we propose to move from a subjective to objective measure. For instance, we seek comment on whether we should require that all primary video21 and program-related content bits transmitted by the broadcaster (the “content bits”) be carried to avoid material degradation. Alternatively, we seek comment on whether the Commission's existing non-discrimination requirement is a better objective test for material degradation. In the First Report and Order, the Commission prohibited cable operators from treating cable programming services more favorably than broadcast signals for purposes of material degradation.22 We seek comment on the application of the existing or a new non-discrimination rule in this context. We also seek comment on how to verify that cable operators are abiding by this requirement. Should we identify specific measurement tools? If so, what should those measurement tools be? We also request comment and specific estimates regarding the costs of compliance with this proposal, particularly with respect to small cable operators, and whether there are alternative means that would minimize the economic impact for small cable operators while still complying with the statutory requirements.23
Our option of carrying all content bits is responsive to the Petitions for Reconsideration filed in this docket in which broadcasters requested that we require cable operators to carry “the entire qualified digital bit stream of each station in the format in which the broadcaster originally transmitted it.”24 It also is consistent with the requests for clarification made by the Broadcast Group and the Noncommercial Broadcasters that the material degradation requirements “ensure that cable subscribers do not receive DTV service, including HDTV, that is inferior in quality to the service available over the air.”25 In addition, by seeking comment on measurement tools, this option is responsive to broadcast commenters’ concern that the material degradation standard adopted in the First Report and Order did not provide an objective way to evaluate material degradation.26
We request comment on this option. We specifically request comment on how cable operators are to distinguish between bits with content and so-called “null bits,”27 and whether material degradation could result from failure to carry these empty bits. We also recognize that bandwidth-conserving techniques commonly are used by cable operators to improve efficiency. Is there a way to permit the use of improved compression, statistical multiplexing, rate shaping,28 or other techniques that would not result in prohibited material degradation?
We further seek comment on whether, under the option of carrying all content bits, a cable operator that wishes to reduce the number of content bits in a digital broadcast signal first must demonstrate to the broadcaster that such reduction will not result in material degradation. In doing so, how might the cable operator demonstrate that, although not all of the content bits are being carried, the content will not be degraded in a material way? Would it be necessary and/or sufficient for the cable operator to demonstrate that the broadcast station’s digital signal carriage does not differ from other broadcast or non-broadcast programmers? (We note that this latter comparison also would ensure that cable operators do not discriminate against some or all broadcast content as compared with non-broadcast content.) We seek comment on whether, under these circumstances, the cable operator must continue to pass through all of the content bits until an agreement has been reached with the broadcast station to permit the reduction in the number of bits. Similarly, we seek comment on a rule that when a broadcast station files a carriage complaint concerning material degradation, the cable operator must pass through all of the content bits during the pendency of the complaint.29 In situations where negotiations between cable operators and broadcasters reach an impasse, cable operators may notify the station in writing of that fact and the station will then have 30 days from receipt of the letter to file a complaint with the Commission in order to preserve its claim. We seek comment on these options and on the procedures and mechanisms for cable operators and stations to engage in such discussions short of filing a carriage complaint with the Commission.