Family Tiering Gets Technical

Cable wrestles with analog versus digital, decency definition

Time Warner Cable became the first operator to unveil a family-tier plan, following National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow's pledge in a Senate hearing that six operators will launch tiers of kid-friendly fare.

But the digital “Family Choice” package may sound more like “no choice” to parents, who are limited to viewing only that package and the basic broadcast tier. While Time Warner's family-tier subscribers—paying $12.99 a month for 15 channels, on top of $7.95 monthly for a digital set-top box, as well as their basic-service fee—would receive channels like Disney Channel and Discovery Kids, they're not given the option of getting such channels as HBO and ESPN.

That's because Time Warner will be installing analog signal traps outside “Family Choice” subscribers' homes that block out all the networks in the expanded-basic tier. The digital set-top box will not be authorized to receive video-on-demand programming. Time Warner says this package meets the demands of some families.

McSlarrow acknowledged that there are “a host of technical issues” involved with introducing family tiers, and all the companies—Time Warner, Comcast, Advance/Newhouse Communications (Bright House Networks), Insight Communications, Bresnan Communications and Midcontinent Communications—will likely have different solutions to launching the tiers.

Bigger complications await operators with cable systems that are not yet converted to digital. Digital channels can be easily arranged into a programming block that would be accessible only to subscribers with a digital set-top box.

The main way to limit subscriber access to “offensive” analog channels is through the use of addressable analog set-tops or by trapping, which employs a simple signal filter located outside the subscriber's home in order to block signals. Using trapping to create a separate family tier might require operators to remap a number of analog channels and would also necessitate service calls to install the equipment at subscriber homes.

Some analog channels might need to be duplicated in a family-friendly digital tier, which is a waste of bandwidth. But major operators that, like Comcast, have created “digital simulcast” systems are already rebroadcasting the analog basic channels in compressed digital form, so this would not be an issue for them.

Clearly, operators are anxious about the digital-versus-analog dilemma, and each one is going to come up with its own solution.

Bresnan Communications, which serves 300,000 subscribers in the western U.S., believes the family tier will “most likely be a digital tier of service, but it's too soon to guarantee that,” says spokeswoman Maureen Huff. She adds that some analog channels could be duplicated in the new digital tier.

Bresnan technicians who are performing digital installations train customers in parental-blocking functions to show them that they “have access to these tools already,” says Huff, adding that it has been successful in limiting customer complaints.

For analog customers, Bresnan is “more than willing” to trap out what they might deem to be offensive programming. Huff says that some analog customers have been “very vocal” about certain programming but trapping tends to be effective because customers are often offended by one particular channel.

Bright House Networks, with more than 2 million subscribers in the South, Midwest and California, “couldn't even speculate” as to whether the tier would be digital or analog, says spokeswoman Kena Lewis.

Tom Simmons, VP of public policy for Midcontinent Communications, envisions a mix of analog and digital. Making it work for his system, which has 200,000 subscribers in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Minnesota, might be tricky. “I imagine we will find a way to make it fit between the broadcast tier and expanded basic. It will sit between the two and have components of some of the digital channels,” he says. “We want to make sure we're not just blocking a bunch of stuff.”

Pay attention, parents!

Midcontinent has a 50/50 mix of analog and digital subscribers. Through the use of trapping technology, it provides blocking functions on the analog tier at no charge. Digital set-tops, of course, offer a great deal of flexibility with their parental-lock functions. In addition to training customers during digital installations, Midcontinent systems often run channels that provide a continual loop of instructions on how to use the digital box's program-access features in conjunction with the electronic program guide.

“We have promoted the parental-lock plans on both,” says Simmons, adding that the biggest problem with digital homes is getting parents to take the time to properly set up the controls.

Some analog channels may be replicated in a digital family tier, says Simmons. “The programmers will take a look at all the program contracts, and a goodly number of those will be renegotiated,” he says. “We will marry that with the considerations we find on the technical side and find a tier that makes sense.”

Operators agree that, digital versus analog aside, what constitutes indecency promises to be a sticking point, too. “We're acutely aware that what one person perceives as family-friendly viewing will not be what another person perceives as family-friendly,” says Bresnan's Huff. “That's the biggest challenge in creating the tier.”