Close Encounter With a Giant


Plainfield, N.J.— Comcast Corp. held a local open house last Monday, showing off a "digital processing center" here that officials said has been a work in progress for about four years.

"It's as state of the art as state of the art can be," declared regional vice president Greg Arnold, whose ties extend to the time before Comcast bought the local Storer Cable system. "It's a good little facility."

Monday was the day after the Super Bowl, and a 36-inch Panasonic monitor was set up to display some new high-definition fare: feeds from New York's WNET and Long Island's WLIW, both local Public Broadcasting Service affiliates. Heavenly aerial views of Italy, so familiar to pledge-drive viewers, shone brightly on the TV screen.

But there was a dark side to the visual perfection, apparently. The HD version of PBS is a recent addition here, and engineers said there have been some "encoding problems" that have at times left some "digital artifacts" on the screen. PBS was working on it, they said.

Well, everything's a work in progress in cable, when you think about it.

For example, the Plainfield engineers were pretty pumped about a recent upgrade to hard drives on their SeaChange International Inc. video servers, clearing room for a March introduction of premium-network VOD services.

PBS might have had some high-definition kinks to work out, but the most important HD program of this year (or any year) went smoothly the night before, officials in Plainfield were relieved to report. Two HD specialists came in on their day off to field questions and complaints at the regional call center. Were they inundated? "It was very quiet — uneventful," I was told.

Off in a corner, a technician was splicing fiber, using what he described as a kind of microscope that displayed the core of the tiny strand. Other engineers were talking about how the previous Thursday, technicians spent frigid hours replacing "kinked" outdoor fiber that was degrading digital picture quality in some parts of the area.

A few more Super Bowl party disasters avoided.

It's been getting harder not to think of Comcast as a monolithic beast that's a little too willing to get tough. The corporate host of the 2000 Republican National Convention absorbed some censorship complaints last week, after declining to run a TV ad by a New Jersey-based organization's Anti-War Video Fund on the night of the State of the Union speech.

Also, an as-yet-unverified report from a rival publication last week claimed Comcast has informed programmers it is "imposing" a 10 percent license-fee reduction, justified by the huge increase in Comcast's subscriber base. Our reporting has yet to uncover such letters, and some sources say Comcast would be unlikely to put such demands in writing. But Comcast surely has only begun to whack away at programming costs, and some of what it tries to do will cause some howls of outrage.

So it's nice, as a counterpoint, to see some of the good work the country's biggest cable operator is doing, one strand and one hard drive at a time, on the local level.

Up close, it's easier to see the good works in progress.