Cable Takes Hit at NAB

Author:
Publish date:

Las Vegas -- The "Big Four" broadcast networks
took repeated shots at the cable industry last week, while sending up flares for
"special incentives" from Congress and the Federal Communications Commission
about mandatory must-carry regulations for digital TV.

ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox used last week's National
Association of Broadcasters show here as the forum to discuss the different digital blends
that they'll use to transmit standard-definition and high-definition television
programs this fall.

They also used the annual conference to start what sounded
like a plea for special treatment from the FCC and Capitol Hill.

Preston Padden, president of ABC Television Network, said
he would like "special encouragement" and "incentives" to move to
digital, given broadcasters' status as "the only source of free TV."

"It's extremely frustrating to be sitting here in
this sea of choices and still work under regulations that came out in the 1940s and 1950s,
in an area of [programming] scarcity," Padden said.

In separate remarks, NAB president Edward Fritts
underscored his belief that it is "vitally important that broadcasters' digital
signals be carried by all cable systems."

In his "state-of-the-industry address" last
Monday, Fritts said, "We must have full certainty that this wonderful new digital
technology is available to all Americans, and that cable has no right to deprive consumers
of our signals."

Many on the broadcast and consumer-electronics sides called
cable's role in carrying broadcasters' digital signals to homes one of the most
crucial elements in the success of the weighty project.

So far, though, there have no concrete must-carry moves
from the FCC. At a session last week, FCC commissioner Susan Ness again requested
cross-industry cooperation on digital TV carriage.

Ness said she is worried about consumers who go into retail
stores later this year and in 1999 and find that digital-TV sets aren't
"cable-ready."

"I don't want to see a bottleneck provider such
as cable defeat the rollout of digital by failing to pass through to a digital-TV set a
full-resolution signal," Ness said.

She made no reference to any must-carry or
retransmission-consent rulings, except to say, "We'll take that up
shortly."

Ness' comments subsequently created a firestorm of
conversation directed mostly at Dan Brenner, general counsel for the National Cable
Television Association and the lone cable representative on an all-broadcast-centric
panel.

Brenner defended cable's position to fight any
must-carry rules, and he cited the bandwidth-hungry nature of HDTV signals.

"In a [cable] system with no digital platform, to be
required to take off four existing analog channels [so as to] potentially receive four
[broadcaster-provided] digital pictures" just doesn't make sense, especially
considering that digital-TV sets that can receive the signals have yet to be introduced to
the market, he said.

Brenner's position, predictably, did not fall on
sympathetic ears. To applause from the standing-room-only audience, Gerry Waldron, a
partner with the NAB's outside legal agent, Covington & Burling, fired back,
"Voluntary measures are not enough.

"It doesn't provide the certainty that
broadcasters need ... to ensure that this digital transition happens rapidly,"
Waldron said.

Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics
Manufacturers Association and an outspoken critic of the cable industry, continued the
anti-cable slant at a later session, again taking shots at Tele-Communications Inc.'s
HDTV-carriage preferences.

Ironically, the HDTV format that TCI endorses -- 720p
(progressive-scan), because more HDTV channels can fit into one 6-megahertz channel, which
saves bandwidth -- falls squarely within the CEMA's recently established parameters
for HDTV.

Leo J. Hindery Jr., TCI's president and chief
operating officer, bristled at Shapiro's remarks.

"Just because you want to sell expensive TV sets does
not give you the prerogative to be loose with the truth," Hindery said.

Hindery added, "Mr. Shapiro's characterization
[that TCI will deprive its customers of a true HDTV signal] is inaccurate and
scurrilous."

He said TCI will support whichever formats are delivered by
broadcasters -- although not necessarily at comparable costs, because even the most
advanced set-tops may need a more muscular processor and extra memory to handle 1080i. The
latter refers to 1080-interlace, a bandwidth-eating standard that CBS and NBC have
suggested they will adopt in primetime.

Cable tried to hold out the olive branch in a
keynote-luncheon speech by Cable Television Laboratories Inc. president Richard Green.

"We will carry your broadcast signals without
modifying the audio or video quality," Green told attendees. "We would ask that
you consider the impact of your new services ... It's our intention to carry your
programs in whatever format you select, but in many systems, we're strapped for
capacity."

NBC, which will start producing HDTV using the 1080i format
this fall, used the NAB show to announce that it will build an HDTV studio with Sony
Electronics Inc. The studio will be used to film The Tonight Show with Jay Leno as
the first program produced in HDTV next year.

Scott Sassa, president of NBC Television Studios,
also said NBC will offer hit movies Men in Black and Titanic using the 1080i
format next year.

Outside of primetime, NBC will broadcast in the SDTV 480p
format during other dayparts, Sassa said.

Also at the NAB convention, Fox Television Network affirmed
that its digital plan is wholly centered on the lower-resolution 480p technique.

CBS will go with 1080i for primetime and 480p for other
dayparts, said Joe Flaherty, CBS' senior vice president of engineering. Flaherty
argued that interlace equipment is "cheaper and available more quickly" than
progressive-scan alternatives.

ABC, which prefers the 720p format, did not discuss
specific programming plans, except to say that it hopes that TheWonderful World
of Disney
programming from its parent company, The Walt Disney Co., will be its first
in HDTV. Padden also encouraged his competitive colleagues at the other networks "to
stop bickering about what format is better and just get on with it."

The Public Broadcasting Service was the only broadcaster to
publicly broach the subject of multicasting its SDTV programs, saying that it will
definitely do so as a way to enhance its archives.

PBS will use 480p for its SDTV content and 1080i for future
HDTV content, officials said.

All of the broadcasters said they're not worried about
their differences because diversity will help to determine what the marketplace likes and
doesn't like.

Related