Powell's Multicast Plan Concerns Willner

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Broadcasters who view the Federal Communications Commission's new digital-TV transition proposal as a means of forcing cable systems to carry multiple DTV signals from a single TV station should expect resistance, Insight Communications Inc. CEO Michael Willner said Tuesday.

Though he was generally supportive of the FCC plan backed by chairman Michael Powell, Willner said he'll seek clarification as to whether cable systems would be compelled to carry high-definition TV signals or multicast DTV signals.

"Is this a high-definition television discussion, or is it more than that?" Willner asked reporters at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's headquarters.

The Powell plan calls on cable systems to offer, at no charge, to carry up to five HDTV signals provided by cable networks or local TV stations, or other "valued-added DTV programming." Such value-added programming would include "innovative multicasting."

Although Insight, a 1.2 million subscriber MSO, intends to carry both cable and broadcast HDTV signals, Willner said he'd be concerned if the Powell plan became a mandate to carry dozens of digital signals provided by TV stations in a market.

"That doesn't necessarily mean that [TV stations] have a right to multiple streams of television to compete against cable networks as a government mandate," he said. "I disagree with that concept."

Some TV stations plan to offer HDTV during primetime and multiple DTV signals in other dayparts. The National Association of Broadcasters is lobbying the FCC to require cable carriage of an eligible station's entire video stream, whether it includes one free HDTV signal or multiple free standard-definition streams.

Willner, chairman of the NCTA's board of directors and executive committee, applauded Powell for offering a road map to advance the DTV transition.

"The Powell approach is not a regulatory approach to this," he said. "It is a suggestion on how the industries might come to voluntary agreements. I support the chairman's efforts to help us find that way."

Asked whether the Powell plan was voluntary in name only, Willner replied, "You mean, is my arm being twisted?"

Willner followed up by indicating that cable and the other affected industries need to come together, or they should expect a forceful response from regulators.

"If it doesn't work, then I don't know what the next step would be, but I would not be surprised if they weren't going be some heavier suggestions coming out of Washington," Willner said.

NCTA president Robert Sachs said he expects to issue a "comprehensive response" to the Powell plan either before or during the trade group's convention in New Orleans from May 5 to May 8.

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