Mr. Sachs Goes to Pebble Beach

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Waving an olive branch, National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Robert Sachs addressed a gathering of the National Association of Broadcasters last week in Pebble Beach, Calif.

The topic was high-definition television, and the NCTA's spiel was about how much cable operators and broadcasters have in common with respect to their separate — but common — goal of convergence.

What timing. A week earlier, more than half of the nation's broadcast-television stations had asked the government for a waiver because they weren't ready to deliver that second digital TV signal they had lobbied so hard for.

Years later — now that they have it — they still don't know what to do with it.

Meanwhile, cable MSOs Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable have started to offer their subscribers HD tiers that include a local broadcast station here and there. Other MSOs will follow their lead.

Cable operators — who've been accused of foot-dragging with respect to carriage of those local HD signals in the past — essentially told the NAB last week, "We're ready, where are you?"

Fine. Sachs's Palm Beach parlay seems to be aimed at getting Congress to turn its attention to what the broadcasters are — or not doing — as the government begins appropriating the money it expects to get once the broadcasters return their analog spectrum.

I wouldn't start doling out the dough just yet. It now appears most broadcasters won't make the digital deadline, and that will only further drag out the HD revolution. Many TV-station managers will tell you they cannot afford to build digital transmission towers because of the downtick in ad sales.

So the question is, does cable look smart here? The answer is yes and no. Yes, cable's move to carry some HD broadcast signals might be just enough to repel government intervention, and that is a good thing.

But the no revolves around too many unanswered questions, most notably: Does anyone, aside from the government and the consumer-electronics industry, really care about HDTV?

The Consumer Electronics Association obviously wants to help its members move new and expensive television sets. And the government has this fuzzy notion of making America the builder of the world's telecommunications super highway

Cable's position is that by helping to provide compelling HDTV programming, it can drive up sales, and, in the end, bring down the price of equipment for a broader base of consumers.

The NCTA compares the evolution of HD to the birth of color TV. But that change took a good 15 years to occur — and it's simply an apples-to-oranges comparison.

What are we really doing here? Are we creating HD programming because consumers are demanding it, or even expressing any interest in it?

No, we're doing it because the government says it's a really good thing to do.

So what should an MSO do? If I were a cable operator, I'd probably play ball with the NCTA here and make a little space available for some newfangled HD tier. If I got lucky, maybe 5 percent of my subscribers might want it someday, and I would have a wonderful little new revenue stream.

But right now, I wouldn't bank on an HD tier as being anything more than what it really is: An olive branch to wave in front of regulators.

HD is not going to do much to shore up anyone's bottom line, for many, many moons — if at all.

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