CBS has a dream. A digital dream. It wants its affiliates to look at their spectrum in a new way. At last week's affiliates meeting, the Tiffany network proposed that stations add multicasting to their digital future.
CBS has always been the network leader in high-definition television, but this is the first time it has suggested multicasting as an important part of its digital strategy.
"We want to explore strategies to exploit all digital opportunities together," Executive Vice President Martin Franks told station executives during the recent Las Vegas convention.
Those options include multicasting, video-on-demand, and Web content. CBS is also asking its affiliates to consider the proposal made by Emmis Communications Chairman Jeff Smulyan at the National Association of Broadcasters' conference in April. He hopes broadcasters in local markets will team up to offer a low-cost wireless alternative to cable.
CBS's digital stance has changed with the times.
Technology now allows stations to simultaneously broadcast in high-definition and standard digital format. Some CBS affiliates are already doing so. They broadcast alternative sports games or breaking news on digital channels they can't accommodate on their main feed, says Bob Lee, chairman of the CBS affiliate board and president of WDBJ Roanoke, Va. "That kind of programming puts the viewer back in the driver's seat."
The selections that CBS stations would offer on digital tiers could "help promote network priorities," Franks says. Such enhanced programming might be the making of Survivor, the history of the Grammys, and value-added sports content.
To date, some 11 CBS affiliates air the NCAA basketball tournament in high-definition, with three other games offered on the stations' multiplex tiers. With so many viewers wanting access to all tournament games, cable operators are willing to carry the package.
It's that kind of programming that Franks is pushing affiliates to provide.
If cable operators are offered a "mix of compelling local and national shows," he says, they will be more likely to carry all of the stations' digital offerings.
If CBS affiliates sign on with Smulyan's plan, they won't have to worry about cable carriage for their multiplexed tiers. Smulyan envisions local stations joining forces to broadcast their signals by way of custom-made receivers that sit on viewers' TV sets, neatly bypassing cable operators.
CBS isn't the only network trying to influence what affiliates do with their digital spectrum.
NBC is pushing its affiliates to pay for a network-supplied digital weather service; some stations are more enthusiastic than others. Fox, by contrast, wants to program all of its affiliates' digital spectrum, say CBS group heads.
Besides asking affiliates to consider the new digital plan, Franks wants them to do a better job of exploiting CBS's high-definition offerings, which include all of prime time, most marquee sports, the Grammys, and Emmy-winning soap opera The Young and the Restless.
Says Franks, "CBS HD was a key factor in our retransmission negotiations with major cable operators, such as Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, Cablevision, and Adelphia."
That's why Franks urged affiliates to "air it: flip the HD switch. Promote it: How many stations have aired a single HD promo not provided by the network? Sell it: Get your sales guys to do a better job of selling industry-leading CBS HD."
Whether the digital plan could become contentious is unclear. Affiliates say they hadn't had time to digest the details. One thing is clear: Affiliates aren't concerned about the departure of Viacom President Mel Karmazin and the concurrent promotion of Leslie Moonves to Viacom co-president and co-COO.
Then again, Moonves was quick to set them straight: "CBS will always be the jewel in my crown. It's where my heart is."