Cable Hops on Powell's DTV Train

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Federal Communications Commission officials like to say the digital television train is leaving the station, and now's the time to jump aboard.

What they don't say — but strongly hint — is that if you don't get on, you might wind up tied to the tracks.

Last week, the cable industry decided to buy a ticket and go for the ride, as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association announced broad support from the top-10 cable operators for the voluntary DTV transition plan that FCC chairman Michael Powell unveiled April 4.

Powell's plan calls on all players in the DTV transition — TV networks and stations, cable operators, cable programmers, direct-broadcast satellite carriers and consumer-electronics firms — to play an affirmative role in helping to jump-start a transition that Congress is monitoring closely.

The chairman's plan has been billed as a voluntary program for the industries to consider. But some officials from the affected industries believe that if the Powell plan is ignored, the FCC would adopt mandates — or Congress might step in with legislation.

Cable's digital revolution has been underway for many years, and operators have signed up 15.2 million standard digital subscribers.

But Powell wants cable to take that one step farther, by adopting high-definition TV so that Americans gain exposure to the very best in DTV picture quality.

When Powell unveiled his plan, the NCTA was neutral, mainly because the industry had been caught off guard and needed time to review it.

Last week, NCTA president Robert Sachs, in a letter to Powell, pledged cable's "strong and enthusiastic support for your proposal."

POWELL APPLAUDS

Although Powell may have surprised the NCTA with his plan, NCTA did not blindside Powell with its formal response: His press office issued a statement of support 12 minutes after the trade group released the Sachs letter and a summary of the NCTA's commitments.

"I applaud the cable industry for its leadership in helping us to deliver on the promise of digital television for the American people," Powell said in a statement. "I am pleased that the cable companies have embraced my challenge with solid commitments and I look forward to similar strides by the other industries in the coming weeks."

In his letter, Sachs said the MSOs would "offer" to carry "up to five" HDTV channels supplied by local TV stations (commercial or public), as well as cable networks.

The operators — which would not pay for the broadcast programming or seek compensation for carriage — would achieve that goal by the Jan. 1, 2003, deadline set by Powell.

To qualify, the programmers must offer HDTV during 50 percent of primetime.

Sachs said the cable operators agreed to these carriage terms for 750-megahertz systems in the top 100 markets. There was one small caveat: the MSO's commitment applies to systems with more than 25,000 subscribers.

FCC sources said there didn't appear to be a problem with the 25,000 cutoff.

Some have noted that the phrase "up to five" contained in the Powell plan can also mean "zero." But FCC officials said that was just poor wording, and they meant to say at least five.

Others have wondered whether cable would load up its HDTV menu with cable networks and ignore broadcasters. Sachs has told reporters that cable would carry high-definition signals from local TV stations.

"We're pleased the cable industry is moving toward carriage of digital broadcast signals," National Association of Broadcasters president Edward Fritts said in a statement. "We look forward to the day when cable operators carry all digital broadcast signals in their entirety."

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