Picture's Becoming Clear: HDTV Peace Wearing Thin


Broadcasters cried foul last week, accusing cable operators of blocking consumer access to Super Bowl XXXVII in HDTV. But after reviewing the play, Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell declined to call a penalty.

Powell — who tried to jump-start the digital TV transition last April by seeking voluntary high-definition television commitments from cable operators and broadcasters — remained neutral when asked about HDTV-blocking allegations made by National Association of Broadcasters president Edward Fritts.

"I don't know the specifics of what did and didn't happen," Powell said. "I think it would be a hazardous thing to suggest that any one incident along this tortured path of the DTV transition is compelling or indicative of an entire set of problems.

"I think the only thing that is going to work is to make sure everybody stays in the playpen and makes DTV work for consumers, which are the only people that ultimately matter," the FCC chairman added.

The tempest erupted one day after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers routed the Oakland Raiders in the NFL's championship game, the second most-viewed Super Bowl in 37 years, drawing 137.6 million viewers for at least some of the action.

In a release that blindsided cable, the NAB's Fritts claimed that operators decided to "block" the high-definition feed of ABC's coverage of the game.

The NAB's evidence: An internal survey that found "viewers in 64 of 80 markets where broadcasters have converted to [HDTV] were unable to watch the Super Bowl on ABC in HDTV on Sunday through their local cable system."

The trade group said ABC's off-air HDTV feed was available in markets that included 69 percent of TV households, but cable operators that carried the HD signal served subscribers in markets that included 27 percent of all TV households.


The NAB's blast sent shockwaves through the industry because late last year, Fritts and National Cable & Telecommunications Association Robert Sachs opened talks in New York City with company leaders from both sides in an effort to find common ground on various DTV issues.

Last week, it appeared that some of that good will had evaporated.

NCTA senior vice president for law and regulatory policy Daniel Brenner countered Fritts' argument by claiming that an unnamed number of ABC affiliates demanded cash for the Super Bowl feed. Brenner indicated that under Powell's plan, no cash was supposed to change hands, to minimize financial hurdles associated with consumer adoption of HDTV.

"Cable was pleased to make available this year's Super Bowl in HDTV to millions of customers. We regret that many stations have rejected the guidance of FCC chairman Powell, so that cable could regularly offer ABC HD broadcasts without charging an additional fee," Brenner said in a statement.

The NCTA said HDTV service (including cable and broadcast) is offered by at least one cable operator in 62 of the top 100 TV markets. Yet, the NAB claimed about 10 percent of the 733 commercial TV stations that have started to broadcast digital signals are carried by cable.

Around the U.S., cable operators are rolling out HDTV, testing various business models and experimenting with pricing and packaging options.

It appears that MSOs did not pass on the opportunity to use the highly watched Super Bowl to spark consumer interest in HDTV.

Cable operators offered HD feeds of the Super Bowl via local broadcast affiliates in an effort to bolster HDTV penetration, but there didn't seem to have been any runaway success to match that of the gridiron Buccaneers.

Ops mum on HD

In general, operators seemed to be about as talkative as Oakland Raider coach Bill Callahan after the game.

Time Warner Cable spokesman Keith Cocozza said that 98 percent of markets with access to HDTV offered the Super Bowl telecast to their customers, via over-the-air feeds from local ABC affiliates.

"We made the Super Bowl available everywhere that ABC made its HD signal available to us," he said.

Asked for specific markets, he singled out Albany, N.Y., which worked with ABC affiliate WTEN-TV to deliver the HD signal to customers, and to promote its availability as quickly as possible.

That operation transported ABC's HD signal directly from WTEN's studio to the MSO's Albany master digital headend via a dedicated fiber feed.

Various technical and engineering issues were resolved by Wednesday afternoon, after which Time Warner's Albany system began informing customers about the Super Bowl's availability on Jan. 26 in HD format. It also e-mailed programming alerts to major media outlets, advising how and where to pick up an HDTV converter and offering information on the other types of in-home equipment necessary to receive the feed.

Over the two days leading up to the Sunday-evening kickoff, Albany division spokesman Peter Taubkin said Time Warner had distributed more than 150 HDTV converter boxes in the Albany area, in addition to the 1,600 already deployed.

Time Warner's local Web site offered information, as did the MSO's regional news network, Capital News 9, which incorporated it into its sports programs. E-mails were also sent to Road Runner high-speed data customers.

Customer-service representatives were also brought up to speed with the proper information for handling calls, while each of the division's front counters received an inventory of HD converters.

Time Warner also contacted high-end electronics retailers in the Albany market to inform them about the local availability of HD converters and, where possible, to house converter inventory to increase its availability to consumers.

The stores were also provided with training on HD converter self-installation.

Strong in S.D.

In the Super Bowl's host city of San Diego, Cox Communications Inc. officials said the local system's HD Super Bowl telecast received "strong" reaction from customers.

There were "a few glitches" on the local ABC affiliate's end, said vice president of programming Dan Novak, but no major problems.

Without divulging order numbers, Cox executives cited an increase in HD connections in the week or so before the game — the best yet since HDTV launched last November.

Cox got the word out about the Super Bowl's availability on HD mostly via ads in newspaper sports sections, said vice president of marketing Art Reynolds. Promoting Turner Network Television's upcoming NBA All-Star Game coverage in similar fashion is "a possibility," he added.

Comcast Corp. offered high-definition feeds of ABC affiliates to its customers in the Washington, D.C., region; Philadelphia; New Jersey and elsewhere.

Glitch-free back east

Comcast Eastern Division spokesman Jeff Alexander said his operation now has 1,500 HD customers, but wouldn't estimate how many signed on for the Super Bowl. Technical staffers monitored the coverage throughout and "it went without a hitch, with beautiful quality."

"We're getting the word out on high-profile events whenever we can," Alexander said, adding that he too expected a marketing and PR push tied to the All-Star hoops.

Cablevision Systems Corp. offered free installation of an HD converter box, but apparently consumers had to buy its iO: Interactive Optimum digital service in order to watch the game in high-definition. A spokeswoman did not provide further details by press time.

Insight Communications Co. said it launched HD in several markets by game time, including Louisville, Ky., and Columbus, Ohio.

Charter Communications Inc. launched HD in Kalamazoo, Mich., just in time for the Super Bowl and also made inroads in Miami Beach, Fla., and elsewhere. But a spokesman could not provide additional details at press time.