NAB: HD Cable Not So Super
Industries keep sniping; Powell tells 'em to grow up
By Ken Kerschbaumer -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/2/2003 7:00:00 PM
For the second time this year, the National Association of Broadcasters lashed out at the cable industry for not carrying HDTV programming from local broadcasters. Cable lashed back, and the hopes for a reasoned rapprochement dimmed.
Less than a day after the Super Bowl, the NAB issued a release saying that cable systems in 64 of the 80 markets where ABC stations broadcast the big game in HDTV did not offer the HD broadcast to their customers. Cable shot back that a bunch of other ABC stations weren't offering any HDTV at all and that broadcasters' "free spectrum" was lying fallow.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who has pushed the two industries to work out their differences, said he wasn't surprised by the escalating war of words but he wasn't happy either, suggesting that the two sides were acting like children. "I've never been surprised by the degree to which any one of the constituencies will seize on any incident as proof positive of their personal and parochial positions," he told reporters last week. "The only way this is going to work is for everybody to stay in the playpen and work together."
NAB President Eddie Fritts said in the association's statement, "It's disappointing that cable-TV operators are continuing to block viewer access to digital and HDTV programming delivered by local broadcasters. One would think that cable operators would want to provide their customers with access to broadcast HDTV programming like the Super Bowl."
NCTA Chairman Michael Willner, vice chairman and CEO of Insight Communications, says the NAB's comments do nothing but drive a wedge in any fruitful discussions that might occur between the two organizations. "I don't know where the NAB is coming from at a time when government regulators and legislators are looking to industries to solve these problems. And I don't understand what they accomplish by taking a cheap shot at every opportunity."
The first NAB attack came last month in response to an NCTA release crowing that one-third of TV households can receive HDTV programming via cable. NAB responded with a release of its own, referring to local carriage as a "paltry commitment" that systems won't provide and saying that most HD programming on cable is from cable nets like HBO or Discovery.
Cable argues that one reason for that "paltry commitment" is that some stations are asking for payment for carriage of the HD signal. Cable operators aren't paying, and the stations aren't being carried.
"The issue of money has not been resolved in many of those markets, and FCC Chairman Michael Powell is looking for a transitional plan that will not add costs to consumers," says Willner. "Broadcasters have the free use of publicly owned airwaves to deliver their signals free of charge to consumers. And why they think the economic model should be different for cable customers is something I never understood in the analog world, and I don't understand it in the digital world."
NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton counters that broadcasters should get paid because operators are charging subscribers for the HD tier, including free, over-the-air content. "It seems to me like the pot calling the kettle black. The better question is, why is cable charging consumers a fee for broadcast programming that is free?"
Willner says the charges are related to HD are for the HD set-top box, something that saves consumers hundreds of dollars in costs associated with DTV tuners. They are not charged for the content.
Wharton says there is no political agenda to the releases. If there isn't a political agenda, Willner asks, why pick a fight?
"It's important that the trade industries understand that these industries should be talking to each other and finding solutions," Willner says. "It's better than looking to Washington to find solutions for us."
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