Sachs: Cable, PBS Bonding Digitally

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Washington— National Cable Television Association president Robert Sachs last week indicated that cable operators are much more willing to carry public TV stations' digital signals because their commercial brethren have failed to develop digital business plans.

In a speech here last Wednesday, Sachs praised the digital-carriage agreement struck by AOL Time Warner Inc. and public TV stations last fall.

Public broadcasters have promised to use their free digital spectrum for youth and adult education, job training and college courses, Sachs said.

The deal with Time Warner Cable "is likely to become a model for other cable/public television alliances. Why? Because public TV has a vision for using its digital spectrum," Sachs told a Media Institute audience.

He had few kind words for commercial TV stations. He said broadcasters have sought government-imposed digital and analog carriage that would eat up cable's channel capacity, forcing operators to jettison cable networks in favor of redundant off-air signals.

"Most commercial broadcasters don't have a business plan for how to use their free digital spectrum," Sachs said. "With the notable exception of CBS, commercial broadcasters are doing little to no HDTV, and some broadcasters, like Paxson Communications [Corp.], see spectrum as 'beachfront property' to be auctioned by them to wireless companies."

National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said commercial stations established their digital business plans long ago.

"Some networks will be carrying HDTV in primetime," he said. "There will be multiplexing and other digital data delivery in other dayparts, most of which will be free to the consumers — a concept which is probably not familiar to the cable operators."

Last fall, AOL Time Warner reached a digital-carriage agreement with the Association of America's Public Television Stations and the Public Broadcasting Service.

Time Warner said 140 public-television stations reaching about 12 percent of U.S. households are eligible for dual carriage under the deal. Time Warner agreed to carry multiple digital signals, HDTV signals and program-related material during the transition from analog to digital TV.

In other comments, Sachs said the legality of such governmental favors as must-carry for broadcasters is vanishing rapidly. That's because cable and satellite penetration is inching toward 90 percent of U.S. households and because cable networks are providing more programming in the public-interest programming category that broadcasters once dominated, he argued.

"Broadcasting's not the unique service it was even 10 years ago," Sachs said. "And it should not be entitled to special treatment under the First Amendment — especially when special treatment shuts out the speech of others."

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