ACA’s Polka: Off-Air Project ‘Vitally Important’

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American Cable Association CEO Matt Polka called Cable Television Laboratories’ development of a specification to let set-top boxes receive over-the-air digital broadcast signals “vitally important” technology that will give operators leverage in retransmission-consent negotiations.

“I think that is a vitally important piece of technology development, particularly when you read what’s happening in retrans these days and the cost that’s being paid in one way or another by Comcast, Mediacom [Communications] and many more to come,” Polka said.

Comcast reached an agreement with Sinclair Broadcast Group last week to continue retransmitting Sinclair’s TV signals to about 3.4 million of the operator’s subscribers. Comcast claimed that it didn’t pay cash for the right to carry Sinclair’s television signals, but Sinclair disputed that characterization.

The CableLabs off-air project, announced earlier this month, could give cable operators a way to provide broadcasters’ signals without necessarily signing a retransmission agreement.

CableLabs CEO Dick Green wouldn’t comment on whether the off-air specification would help operators vis-à-vis retransmission agreements.

But Polka said the technology “will give cable operators a built-in option that will create leverage in retrans negotiations.” The Pittsburgh-based ACA lobbies on behalf of about 1,100 independent cable operators.

The technology could take the form of a set-top with a built-in off-air tuner or allow existing digital set-tops to connect with an external tuner. That would allow cable subscribers to see broadcast-TV signals and cable programming in “an integrated viewing experience,” CableLabs said. The consortium expects to demonstrate prototypes of the concept before the end of 2007.

At least one broadcast executive, who requested anonymity, said set-tops with off-air tuners wouldn’t change the balance of power in retrans deals: “If [cable operators] want to have our channels integrated into the cable set-top as part of their lineup, they would need our permission.”

Polka countered that “it's not a ‘retransmission’ if we are simply passing through the off-air signal. It's a retransmission if we receive the broadcast signal at our headend and then retransmit it through our cable system.”

He added: “Next the broadcasters will want cable and consumers to pay for their free, over-the-air signal.”

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