Backtalk: Anstrom Rallies for Reparation


Every once in a while, something comes across your deskthat should be shared with the world.

Such was the case when I read a speech that Decker Anstrom-- the former and longtime president of the National Cable Television Association and nowpresident of The Weather Channel -- made to attendees at CableLabs' Winter Conferencein Atlanta last week.

It was a powerful speech that unfortunately far too fewheard. Anstrom called for standards for interactive television and for a new partnershipbetween operators and programmers. But there were no programmers on the scene to hear hiswords of wisdom.

That's because CableLabs, for all of the good work itdoes, still remains an impenetrable good-old-boys club. In this era of so-calledOpenCable, CableLabs does not invite programmers or tech vendors, let alone the press, toattend this important event.

I digress, but I had to get that off my chest, as yetanother year passes and CableLabs has again shut out the press and the rest of theindustry.

Anstrom -- who sometimes still sounds like he'swearing his old NCTA hat -- told the cable engineers who were there that it was time to"repair the counterproductive tension that characterizes too many of today'soperator/network relationships." He acknowledged that programmers, in part, wereresponsible for some of that tension.

While cable operators have been mandated to keep theirprice increases low, some networks have continued to press for steep increases."Operators have been right to push back because the days of just passing throughlicense-fee increases are over," he said.

Anstrom also hammered broadcasters who use retransmissionconsent for the carriage of new, untested cable networks. That, he said, "makesconsumers the victim of corporate brinkmanship."

Anstrom -- now sounding more like a network president --also addressed the economics of digital networks. He said programmers should not go cheap,"because if it's not first-rate programming, people won't watch it or payfor it." Therefore, he rallied for license fees for digital networks.

With his usual candor, Anstrom, now a programmer, told thisgroup of cable engineers that it's easier for networks to do business with DBS, DSLand ISP companies because it's not "premised on a 'we/they' view, buton an 'us' partnership perspective."

Anstrom suggested that CableLabs should stage some meetingswhere programmers and operators could get together to talk tech, identify issues and findopportunities. (Amen, I say to that, and don't forget to invite the press.)

And while he praised CableLabs for its work on the DOCSISstandard for cable modems and on OpenCable, he rallied hard and heavy for standards forinteractive television.

Like many other programmers, TWC is developing content fora myriad of interactive platforms. He reminded those engineers how mind-boggling that canbe.

For example, TWC now works with six major set-top-boxmanufacturers, with multiple digital versions; seven operating-system and middlewareplatforms; four retail platforms; and 10 or more cable and DBS distributors.

And of course, the configuration for each is different. Forprogrammers, he said, that adds to the costs in trying to develop new products and creates"a nightmarish operating environment, as we try to support the individualrequirements of each set-top box, middleware, operating-system and applications provider,and each distributor."

He spoke of the huge broadband opportunity ahead and closedby saying, "But please, set a standard."