Digital Must-Carry Clouds

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New York City's idyllic Tavern on the Green in Central Park was the venue for the recently re-established New York Cable Club, which held its second luncheon last week.

Some 150 attendees from the area turned out on that balmy day in June to hear what the guest speaker, National Cable Television Association president and CEO Robert Sachs, had to report about the state of cable affairs.

Sachs' speech, in contrast to the weather, was like a bolt of lightning, warning that storm clouds were forming, as he reminded attendees that the long-standing spat with broadcasters over digital must-carry was not over.

Sachs painstakingly related how broadcasters have received billions of dollars worth of free spectrum from the government since 1996, but they have done little with it, and they are now asking for even more spectrum for their other revenue services, including data transmission.

And remember, broadcasters have a much longer history of lobbying the pols-and a much more successful one-than cable does.

He reminded attendees that the National Association of Broadcasters, at its recent annual meeting, was making loud noises about digital must-carry.

By contrast, he pointed out how cable had spent, and not given-big difference-$36 billion to upgrade its plant to deliver digital video to its customers. Sachs said more than 7 million subscribers have now signed on to cable's digital service, and by the end of the year, that number will jump to 10 million.

He accused broadcasters of blaming anyone and everyone about their failures to make the transition to digital TV. He also said broadcasters would not succeed until they "developed compelling digital programs that viewers want to watch."

Again, he pointed out cable's progress. In a very telling remark, he said HBO alone is providing more HDTV programming in any given week than all four broadcast networks combined. And that's not even including the efforts of Showtime, Madison Square Garden Network, A & E Network and Discovery Channel in producing programming for high definition.

Cable's progress in that area, Sachs stressed, was important because the industry's investments and efforts would help to ease the transition to digital "by motivating people to buy DTV sets."

In essence, Sachs reiterated what many of us know in our heart of hearts: Broadcasters are not serious about digital television. How many of these broadcasters, after all, are up and running with their second digital channels?

Well, the most important one happens to be in Washington, D.C., where the NBC owned-and-operated station is there for our elected officials, who crafted these rules, to see in their leisure time. Smart political move.

As he has said before, Sachs said cable operators will carry broadcasters' primary signals only when they return their analog spectrum to the government. And remember, that's some 15 years away.

His arguments are compelling, but cable has some work to do here, too, on the perception front. When our government officials are at work in Washington and looking at cable television in that city, they have seen historically cable at its very worst.

Hopefully, Comcast-a strong MSO that has acquired that pathetic, neglected district-will be a powerful poster child for cable's case, which, overall, is actually very strong.

But perception about what you see in your own backyard-and Washington, D.C., is a very important one, as cable has painfully learned-don't change on a dime. So be wary about the clouds Sachs sees in his forecast: They are real.

After all, the lightning from the broadcasters' camp could strike as unpredictably as a late-summer afternoon's thunderstorm. And the broadcasters are becoming more bellicose in their battle for digital must-carry.

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