Cable starts to roll on high-def

With some nudging from lawmakers, industry adds and promotes more HDTV

Maybe all those behind-the-scenes meetings with lawmakers and regulators are working.

Last week, the cable industry rolled out a raft of HDTV announcements, one month after FCC Chairman Michael Powell paid a visit to the National Cable and Telecommunications board of directors, and right after cable industry representatives sat through a third meeting with top House lawmakers. Not to mention a number of "hoe-downs" that FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree has been holding with industry members to advance the transition.

"I think the ice is breaking," said one broadcast-industry lobbyist. "It's obvious that with 70-to-80 percent of people getting their signal from cable, without cable, the transition is going nowhere. I suspect that some people in the government, in their own quiet way, made that point."

There was another take on the announcements, though. One Hill staffer suggested the cable industry was just buying time and trying to head off government action.

Whatever the motive, the cable industry plans to carry more high-definition broadcast programming and to advertise that fact, NCTA President Robert Sachs told broadcasters in a speech before the National Association of Broadcasters in Monterey, Calif., last week.

"We believe that compelling high-definition digital programming will drive DTV sales up and bring prices down to a range more consumers can afford," Sachs said. "And for the DTV transition ever to succeed, this has to happen."

Last week, Comcast Corp. said it would offer HDTV programming to customers in the Washington metro area, Detroit and Indianapolis, adding three markets to the HDTV it already offers in its hometown of Philadelphia. Charter Communications said it would offer HDTV programming in seven markets, including Birmingham, Ala.; South Miami; and St. Louis. Time Warner already offers HDTV programming in 42 markets, although it always has been ahead of the curve on digital TV.

"Cable operators want to provide additional value to consumers and help advance the digital transition," Sachs said. They also want to stay competitive with satellite TV, which is moving much faster on HDTV.

Sachs offered broadcasters "our advertising resources to promote digital television where MSOs are providing HDTV."

Cable industry executives say last week's spate of announcements and goodwill visits is just par for the course, while broadcasters and consumer electronics manufacturers say it's all a good first step, but it hardly addresses the real problems of the transition. For broadcasters, that means digital TV tuners, "plug-and-play" interoperability between set-top boxes and DTV sets, and adequate copyright protection for digital broadcast content. For consumer equipment manufacturers, that means a copyright regime they can live with. New HDTV tiers or no, all those issues are still out there.

"We hear from all the players that the harder we push, and the harder the Senate pushes, the faster some of these bottlenecks are going to be relieved," says Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

One who's pushing harder is Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), who last week introduced legislation to spur an agreement between studios and equipment makers on a standard for protecting digital content (see Week That Was, page 13). Others on the Hill say Congress should push even harder.

"These meetings don't achieve anything because they are out of the public view and no one can cover them," said one staffer. "Closed proceedings are one giant favor to the cable industry. You can slow-roll minor announcements and buy yourself yet another year because we've done these behind-the-scenes meetings and Congress isn't going to legislate now."

That expedite-it message is not new for the cable industry. Last June, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said at the NCTA's annual convention: "This industry should find ways to be perceived as a productive partner in that transition, rather than its obstacle. Consumers will value these new services and they will provide opportunities as well. And they will demand access to them through their cable systems. Help make this a reality in a commercially valid way."