Fritts Blasts Cable's HDTV 'Barrier'


Washington— Senior lobbyists for cable and broadcasting collided last week over which industry is doing more to promote the transition to digital television.

Calling for a more consumer-friendly digital transition, National Association of Broadcasters president Edward Fritts suggested that cable's tiering and pricing practices represented barriers for some consumers interested in high-definition television.

"The cost of cable providing that [HDTV] service has to be considered because you have to buy basic cable, expanded cable, digital cable with an extra box. And if you want HDTV, in many instances you have another box, a sidecar box," Fritts said, in remarks last Monday at the Consumer Electronics Association's HDTV Summit.

Citing the Houston market, though not naming incumbent provider Time Warner Cable, Fritts said cable customers in the Texas city must spend $74.99 per month on various programming tiers before gaining access to HDTV.

"That's a barrier for some families," Fritts said.

Sachs responds

National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Robert Sachs, who shared the rostrum with Fritts, responded strongly to another Fritts charge: Cable operators were monopoly gatekeepers who carry just 75 of the 779 TV stations on air in digital format.

Cable operators are not required to carry both analog and digital signals, Sachs said, and when TV stations surrender their analog signals, "there won't be an issue with respect to carriage of all digital broadcasters in the market."

The majority of cable HDTV customers are not charged for the programming, Sachs added.

Stations play role

"The most common model today is that operators are charging customers getting HD for equipment costs, which, by the way, are subject to government price caps," Sachs said.

Some TV stations are hurting themselves by demanding cash from cable in exchange for carriage of their HDTV signals, Sachs said.

"That's their right. But the cable operator is not functioning as a gatekeeper because they are not signing up for the additional compensation that the broadcasters are seeking to exact," he said.

Competition from direct broadcast satellite carriers sparked $70 billion in upgrades, said Sachs, and MSOs intend to use their digital capacity to offer HDTV from local TV stations as a competitive tool against DBS carriers that lack channel capacity.

"I think HDTV is the driver here," said Sachs, who alleged that many stations are opting to transmit standard-definition digital signals.