Betting on digital

ALTV will be in Las Vegas to talk about how you get delivery and how best to protect the product on the way

The members of the Association of Local Television Stations head into Las Vegas with a lot riding on the numbers 1 and 0.

The ongoing rollout of digital service and carriage of those digital signals on satellite and cable will be high on the list for discussion at the Jan. 22 convention of independent stations and affiliates of Fox, The WB, UPN and Pax.

Also on the table is how to protect the value of TV programming in a world where perfect digital copies are only a click away, as well as how to maintain the supply of independent TV's bread and butter-off-network products, particularly sitcoms-when network prime time is increasingly filled with the reality of news, games and people eating rats and bugs.

Despite the flurry of inauguration activity in Washington the weekend of the ALTV convention, FCC Commissioner-and presumptive chairman-Michael Powell and Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth are scheduled to make the trip to discuss regulatory issues. The Washington perspective will also be supplied by FCC and Hill staffers during a regulatory outlook panel.

The view from Washington looks pretty good for association members, says ALTV President James Hedlund, although challenges remain.

For one, the conversion to digital has been hampered by the battle over a standard-the FCC-adopted 8-VSB vs. Europe's COFDM-and attendant receiver compatibility issues. Hedlund sees some progress in the fact that the side-by-side tests of the two systems are concluding.

For another, the association continues to battle the satellite industry over must-carry.

In November 1999, Congress granted all local TV stations the right to be carried on satellite systems that chose to carry local stations (cable systems are already required to carry all local stations that request carriage). Last September, the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association filed suit against that provision (of the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act), calling it unconstitutional. Hedlund says the association has spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars" fighting the suit.

He also sees the possibility that a second front might open in the battle, with must-carry opponents looking to the new Congress to roll back the provision. The Supreme Court in 1997 upheld cable must-carry, but the satellite industry has distanced itself from that decision, saying cable has a monopoly status that the fledgling satellite industry does not share.

ALTV also continues to fight for cable must-carry of both analog and digital signals during the transition to all-digital broadcasting. The FCC is currently considering the issue, but Hedlund is convinced stations have the law on their side.

Attendees will be able to quiz Powell. Last week, he said the issue was "not yet ripe" for an FCC decision. ALTV argues that "the obligation to carry local digital broadcast stations attaches when a cable operator begins to carry any digital transmissions"-that is, provides a digital tier of service.

Hedlund sees smoother sailing on a couple of key issues with the change in administrations. "A lot of the things we would have been worried about, new public-interest obligations [for digital stations] and free time for candidates, for example, which might have been more front and center if [Chairman William] Kennard were still there, we don't see having the same prominence with a Republican chairman."

Both edges of the Internet's double-edged sword will be on display in Las Vegas. Whereas one panel will look at what stations can do with the Web ("Growing Your Business On-Line"), another will focus on how they can be undone by it ("You've Been Napstered").

"As high-speed Internet delivery systems are put in place so that high-quality video streaming is a reality," says Hedlund, "the exclusivity of programming is the key for stations. With digital broadcasting, you can make perfect copies of Friends
and zing 'em around to everyone who wants them. Then what becomes the value of having the license for Friends
in the Washington market? How do you stop it? Can you stop it?"

It is an important question for stations, some of which pay millions for the privilege of exclusivity for a big-ticket off-net show.

At press time, the convention agenda for Las Vegas was still being finalized, but Hedlund cited some familiar names (all ALTV board members) for the panel on syndication. They include Tribune's Dick Askin, Warner Bros.' Dick Robertson, Paramount's John Nogawski, Columbia TriStar's Steve Mosko, Studios USA's Steve Rosenberg and Buena Vista TV's Janice Marinelli.

Those heavy hitters will take a swing at an issue that Hedlund says could loom large "down the road": the repercussions of the burgeoning reality genre on the availability of off-net offerings.

"With the networks going more into reality programming, whether Millionaire
or expanded time slots for a 60 Minutes II.
that could put a real crunch on the off-net product that has been our bread and butter." says Hedlund. "If more of the prime time hours are filled with programs that have no syndication value, will that mean slimmer pickings in terms of the typical half-hour, off-net sitcoms all these people on the panel sell?" It's a "we're-all-in-this-together scenario," he says.

The panel will be moderated, Donahue-style, by Kevin O'Brien, vice president and general manager of KTVU(TV) San Francisco.

A highlight of the convention will be the awarding of the Distinguished Service Award to former Columbia TriStar TV Distribution President Barry Thurston (also a recent inductee into BROADCASTING & CABLE 's Hall of Fame).