WASHINGTON (AP) – It may soon be easier to watch “Sesame Street,” “Masterpiece Theater” and other public television programs in sharp, digital images.

An agreement announced Monday between the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the Association of Public Television Stations settled issues over how public TV stations should be carried on digital cable systems.

The deal would eventually allow the public TV association’s 356 members to operate up to four channels on digital cable systems. Broadcasters could offer more choices and better programming, said John Lawson, president of the public TV station association.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association represents companies that serve 90 percent of the nation’s cable TV households.

In a statement, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell praised the deal as a “monumental marketplace agreement” that would assist in the transition from traditional analog transmissions of television shows to digital.

Congress has set a deadline of December 2006 for the digital shift, though the date is widely expected to slip because only a small slice of the population has digital televisions, or DTVs.

Still, the voluntary agreement does away with the possibility of the government stepping into negotiations over how public TV stations are to be carried on digital systems, officials with both associations said.

Digital signals don’t have “snow” or interference and can cram more data into a transmission than analog signals, allowing for sharper pictures.

Digital broadcasters can also offer multiple programs over the same bandwidth that now carries only one channel.

It is that technology that would allow a public TV station to offer up to four channels, including high-definition transmissions that offer movie-theater quality pictures.

Questions remain over how many digital channels operated by a local commercial television station must be carried by cable operators. The FCC is expected to address the issue at its monthly meeting next week.

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