Las Vegas— It wouldn't be a National Association of Broadcasters convention without a little cable bashing.
In a speech last Monday, NAB president Edward Fritts put the word out that the agreement on cable-ready digital TV sets was welcome news, but hardly enough to end the tensions between broadcasters and cable.
Fritts complained that cable has refused to carry the bulk of over-the-air DTV signals. Of the 809 digital stations on the air, so far just 107 have obtained cable carriage, he said.
"Here, ladies and gentlemen, the cable industry is missing at its post and absent without leave. Cable operators are carrying less than 13 percent of local DTV broadcast stations that are on the air today," Fritts said.
For many years, the NAB has urged Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to require cable systems to carry both analog and digital TV signals. Despite regulatory setbacks, the trade group has no intention of giving up on "dual" must-carry, Fritts said.
"It's high time that the cable industry be placed under a federal mandate to carry local DTV broadcast signals," Fritts said.
In January, when Fritts complained that cable operators refused to carry ABC's coverage of the Super Bowl in high-definition format, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association replied that many ABC affiliates sought cash for the signal, contrary to the wishes of FCC chairman Michael Powell.
The NCTA also said many TV stations that had converted to digital were not providing HDTV, the service that is supposed to stimulate demand for expensive high-definition sets.
Insight Communications Co. CEO Michael Willner, the NCTA chairman, said the real focus of the DTV transition should not be on cable carriage, but on the millions of analog TV sets that will not work after TV stations stop transmitting analog signals.
"The day you turn off the analog frequencies across America, those devices have to continue to work. That's where the focus of the debate ought to be," Willner said.
In a few weeks, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) is expected to introduce DTV legislation without a dual-must carry requirement, the same approach Tauzin took last year in a draft bill, Tauzin aides said.
"He isn't going to mandate dual must-carry. He doesn't think it's constitutional," said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson.
Some in broadcasting aren't sanguine that Powell's FCC will help on the carriage issue.
"We've tried to push dual must-carry at the FCC, but quite frankly, we haven't done very well," said Tribune Co. lobbyist Shaun Sheehan.
The Paxson plan
Paxson Communications Corp. chairman and CEO Lowell W. (Bud) Paxson remained hopeful that the FCC will adopt his version of digital must-carry.
The Paxson plan would require cable operators to carry just a station's digital signal, which might contain up to six programming streams. One stream designed by the broadcaster would reside on the analog basic tier; all of the others would appear on digital tiers.
The cable industry has opposed this plan, saying it would consume more than the 6 megahertz of bandwidth now allocated to each analog TV station.
"Dual must-carry is going nowhere, but multicast must-carry is on the bus and getting ready to leave," Paxson said. "I think some variation of that has a very good chance. I say it because I know it's going on. I'm not going to give you any more of a statement than that."