Broadcasters Cry Foul on HD Squeeze

Cable compression could cause a drop in picture quality, they argue

In an economy that is putting more lines of worry on broadcasters' faces than there are of resolution on an HDTV set, picture clarity could become a critical selling point and a path to differentiate channels in a way never seen in the analog age, broadcasters say.

That's why some of those broadcasters are now smarting even more over last fall's FCC decision allowing cable operators to compress broadcasters' high-definition signals. That ruling came as part of the FCC's mandate that cable operators add must-carry stations' digital HD signals in HD. In short, they argue, what good is a great picture if most people don't get to see how great it is?

In an analog world, “You didn't necessarily differentiate product on quality of picture,” says David Donovan, who heads the broadcasters' chief spectrum lobby, the Association for Maximum Service Television. “In digital, you absolutely do,” he adds, pointing out that the satellite and cable industries have spent big bucks to say they have “more and better-quality HD.”

“[Broadcast HD] is higher quality because you have more bits devoted to high-definition,” he says. “When you get into the cable side, cable is allowed to compress those bits. Now the question becomes, can a cable subscriber actually get to see HD as it is being originally transmitted, in its highest quality? And the answer to that, under the commission's rules, is no.

“What gets passed through,” Donovan adds, “is essentially the same picture quality as cable HD, which drives everything to the least common denominator.”

The cable industry argues that it needs to use compression and switched-digital techniques so it can carry both the broadcast signals they are required to, and the broadband services the FCC is pushing.

“Pictures are in the eye of the beholder,” says National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow. “In this world, everybody uses compression technology and the most advanced [digital] technology to deliver services, video or otherwise, to the consumer. It's not lost on any of us in a competitive marketplace that when we are rolling out HD, or for that matter a standard digital picture or an analog picture, part of the consumer experience is what it looks like. So people are working as hard as they can, as creatively as they can, to deliver the best picture and the best product.”

Channel-Move Controversy

The HD issue reportedly surfaced last week in Comcast's defense of moving channels from analog to digital. The FCC is investigating consumer complaints about those channel moves.

A Comcast source told B&C that the company listed the FCC's requirement of carriage of must-carry signals in HD as among its reasons for moving channels from the more bandwidth-hungry analog tier. The NCTA's McSlarrow said that the FCC's “inability to connect the dots” between requiring HD carriage, and cable operators' need to move some channels from analog to digital to make space for them, was “mind-numbing.”

Asked if he would concede that cable operators may need to move some of their channels from analog to digital to make room for the broadcast HD channels the FCC is requiring them to carry, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin last week said he would have to look at the capacity on each individual system before making that determination.

“The space issues are real,” said a Comcast source familiar with that company's response to the commission. “You have to figure out how to carry them,” the source added, pointing out that to add HD channels in each market, “Most of that is going to have to come from analog-to-digital migration.”

Viewers getting their HD over the air don't have to worry about how cable retransmits the signal, but another reception issue is creeping up. Last week, the FCC put out a public notice on the ground rules for allowing laptops and other unlicensed mobile devices to share the DTV spectrum with TV station signals.

Says broadcaster lobbyist Donovan: “To the extent that you went to purchase a high-definition television to get that best HDTV picture, interference is going to jeopardize that reception, and that means it jeopardizes the competitive posture of the television industry.”