HD Olympic Holdouts

6/13/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

While cable operators in major markets will be able to offer subscribers the Summer Olympics in high-definition this August, dozens of cable systems that haven’t reached deals to carry the HDTV signal of their local NBC affiliate won’t be able to market the Olympics in HD.

Last week, NBC took the wraps off a 1,210-hour Olympics programming schedule. The Peacock added about 450 hours of programming to its previously announced schedule, 399 of which will come from an HDTV channel distributed to NBC-owned stations and affiliates.

The HDTV channel will offer day-old programming from Athens, Greece, that will run on an eight-hour loop

Recently-acquired USA Network will pick up 49 hours of Olympics programming. It will run primarily live coverage from Athens, including basketball, cycling and the men’s and women’s singles and doubles tennis finals.

Several cable operators are looking to use the Games to drive distribution of HDTV set-top boxes and programming packages.

Because the only HD fare from Athens is available on NBC’s broadcast stations and affiliates, operators can offer the programming only by cutting retransmission-consent deals among the 124 NBC stations and affiliates broadcasting a high-def feed.

All of NBC’s 14 owned-and-operated stations in major markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have agreements to supply HDTV feeds to local operators.

But some network affiliates owned by independent station groups such as Emmis Communications Corp. — which has been pushing MSOs to pay cash for their digital signals — haven’t reached deals with cable systems.

Insight Communications Co. offers HDTV in nine markets, and has agreements to carry the HD feed from local NBC stations and affiliates in six of those DMAs, according to vice president of programming Terry Denson.

In two other markets, Peoria and Champaign/Urbana, Ill., the NBC affiliates haven’t launched high-def signals. And in a third, Lexington, Ky., Insight has not yet come to terms with NBC affiliate WLEX-TV.

Denson said the key issue preventing a deal with WLEX-TV is Insight’s position on multicasting. One of Insight’s minimum thresholds for multicasting is that the local broadcaster carry at least 50% of the HD content offered by the network. If the broadcaster doesn’t meet that threshold, the company requires that 25% of its broadcast schedule be in high-definition, Denson said.

In the markets where Insight does carry the local NBC HD feed, the MSO isn’t paying cash for the signal, but it does have agreements to run cross-channel spots or local weather channels from broadcasters.

Time Warner Cable spokesman Keith Cocozza said his MSO has deals with local NBC stations and affiliates to carry their HDTV feeds in 23 of its 31 markets, including Binghamton and Syracuse, N.Y.; Houston; Los Angeles; San Antonio; and Time Warner’s National Division.

Time Warner systems that don’t carry local NBC HD feeds are Albany and Rochester in New York; Austin, Texas; Green Bay, Wis.; Hawaii; Jackson, Miss.; Memphis, Tenn.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Wilmington, Del.

Cocozza said Time Warner is talking to NBC affiliates in those markets about picking up their HDTV channels, and the MSO is hopeful that it will add additional markets before the Olympics begin.

Charter Communications Inc. spokesman Dave Mack said the MSO has HDTV retransmission-consent deals with NBC stations and affiliates on 31 of its systems, including Madison, Wis.; Birmingham, Ala.; Turlock, Calif.; Clarksville, Tenn.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; and Mankato, Minn.

Charter has not yet reached HD agreements with NBC affiliates in Fond du Lac, Wis.; Oxford and Traverse City, Mich.; Northern Alabama; Athens/Decatur, Ala.; Columbus, Ga.; Montgomery, Ala.; Suffolk, Va.; Chicopee, Mass.; Duluth, Minn.; and the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

Comcast Corp. systems that haven’t reached agreements to carry HDTV feeds from local NBC affiliates include Tampa/Sarasota, Fla.; Pittsburgh; Albuquerque, N.M.; Louisville, Ky.; Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; Tucson, Ariz.; Spokane, Wash.; Huntsville, Ala.; Charleston, S.C.; and Panama City, Fla.

NBC Universal Television Networks Group president Randy Falco said NBC is “just shy of 90%” of its goal of selling $1 billion in advertising for Olympics programming on NBC, its broadcast stations and cable networks.

NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said the company expects to spend “several million dollars less” on production costs for Athens than it spent on the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

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