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Much Ado About Multicasting

12/09/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

There's plenty of movement in the digital multicast spectrum these days, as plans from public broadcasters and members of the Big Three begin to take root.

Public television stations, which will roll out lifestyle-centric Create next month, may also team with Scripps Networks on a Spanish-language lifestyle network, according to officials familiar with the situation.

As for the commercial broadcasters, ABC has joined NBC Universal in pursuing spectrum opportunities with weather offerings, while CBS is preparing an entertainment-oriented multicast service to bow late next year.

Scripps, which owns how-to and lifestyle networks Food Network, Home & Garden Television, Fine Living and Do It Yourself, is talking to the Public Broadcasting Service about possibly distributing “Hispanic lifestyle programming created by our brands,” said a Scripps executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

That could entail the creation of a standalone Spanish-language multicast network, the Scripps official said. PBS didn't return calls by press time.

CREATE'S GENESIS

American Public Television, which supplies programming to public TV stations, will officially launch the lifestyle-oriented multicast service Create on Jan. 9.

A collaboration of Boston's WGBH-TV and WNET-TV in New York, the service is already airing on some public-TV stations in an unbranded fashion, according to APT president Cynthia Fenneman.

Come January, Create is slated to launch on 136 stations — 60% of the country — and in 16 of the top 25 DMAs. For most public broadcasters Create will serve as a multicast service, but Fenneman said a handful will launch it as a standalone digital channel.

Programming will include APT and PBS-produced shows from such genres as travel (Rick Steves' Europe and Smart Travels — Europe with Rudy Maxa); cooking (Jacques Pépin: Fast Food My Way); and gardening/home improvement (This Old House).

Linked by interstitials, six-hour blocks will repeat throughout the day.

Create will eventually develop its own original programming, according to Fenneman.

“We hope to provide unique product that will only exist on Create, but right now, it's the best of public television that have strong carriage, good ratings and a breadth of demographics,” she said.

Much of Create's growth stems from a broad digital carriage deal between The National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the Association of Public Television Stations and the PBS that was finalized last spring. Also part of the multicast agreement is toddler-targeted PBS Kids Go channel, entertainment-based channel World and Spanish-language outlet Viva Tv — although its unclear whether Scripps is involved in that service. The American Cable Association expects to complete a similar pact, also providing for Create carriage, with the APTS in January.

BROADCAST FORECAST

Public broadcasters aren't the only ones looking to make the most of their precious digital spectrum. ABC Television, part of The Walt Disney Co., is partnering with AccuWeather Inc. to create local weather channels that will initially be carried by its 10 owned-and-operated stations, and then branch out to other broadcast outlets.

The ABC/AccuWeather digital multicast service — which ultimately wants to position itself as a national weather network — first went live in Philadelphia, at ABC's WPVI-TV, in September. It then debuted on ABC's KFSN-TV in Fresno, Calif.

The service will roll out on four more ABC stations by year-end, and the remaining four owned-stations by the close of the first quarter.

Created by AccuWeather and ABC, the services are customized for each market, and branded by the individual stations. In Philadelphia, for example, the service is called “Action News Now powered by AccuWeather,” and is carried by Comcast in roughly 850,000 homes, according to WPVI president and general manager Rebecca Campbell.

In Philadelphia, the multicast — tagged with WPVI's logo — features meteorologists from both the station and AccuWeather, local radar, a five-day forecast, an ultraviolet forecast, and regional and national weather, according to Campbell.

The multicast feed currently carries some news headlines, and WPVI plans to add local news inserts as well, Campbell said.

In addition to the ABC stations, AccuWeather is talking to other broadcasters about carrying its weather multicast service.

“Our intent is to have one of these in each market, so in effect, to create a national channel made up of individual local stations,” said AccuWeather founder and president Joel Myers. “So it's a way to compete with The Weather Channel.”

By July, AccuWeather hopes to have its new multicast service in stations covering 70% of the country, so the company can sell national advertising, Myers said.

A joint venture between NBC's 14 owned stations and its affiliates — 85 total stations — NBC Weather Plus debuted last year. Within the past few weeks it has signed up stations in markets such Tampa, Fla., Waco, Texas, Albuquerque, N.M., and Albany and Rochester, N.Y. It now covers 75% of the country, reaching 15 million digital subscribers.

“This has been a great year for us,” said general manager Mike Steib.

NBC Weather Plus has also become “a weather content agent” for sister services such as MSNBC, with its talent covering events in partnership with the Peacock's Today Show and NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams, Steib said.

Both TV weather forecasting's dominant player, The Weather Channel, and NBC Weather Plus disputed Myers' claim that his AccuWeather multicast will be a formidable rival.

The Weather Channel takes all competitors seriously, according to Terry Connelly, the 89.6 million-subscriber network's senior vice president and general manager. But TWC has a strong brand, he noted, bolstered by an infrastructure that includes 125 professional meteorologists.

“We don't take our position for granted,” he said. “But if any competitors or television or media company thinks they can create a weather channel just because they know how to do TV, it's way, way, way more than TV. It's science and meteorology.”

At NBC Weather Plus, Steib said, “I'm fully aware that there are other around-the-clock weather products out there on television. They are no competition for the combined strength of the 85 NBC affiliates we have in the NBC Weather Plus network.”

ENTERTAINMENT EYE

Initially expected to be carried by its 21 owned-stations, CBS's multicast, now dubbed “CBS 2,” will incorporate news, weather and local programming, but will also have entertainment fare complementing the mothership network, a CBS official said. For example, there might be in-depth interviews with Survivor contestants; a feature on the making of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation; or outtakes from shows, he said.

“We see it as more complementary to our main network,” the CBS executive said. “It's not like the world needs another news channel or weather channel from us.”

The Big Three have digital retransmission-consent deals with most of the major cable operators, according to officials at the broadcast networks.

In most cases ABC's O&Os have three digital multicasts, according to Ben Pyne, president of Disney and ESPN Networks affiliate sales and marketing. The first is the station's HDTV signal; the second is ABC Plus, a mix of local news and public affairs, and the third is the new AccuWeather service.

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