NAB 2008: Cable Operators, TV Stations Must Unite for DTV Transition

Leaders of Cable, Broadcast Industries Pledge Cooperation

Las Vegas -- They weren’t all singing Kumbaya, but at a National Association of Broadcasters session here Monday, leaders of the cable and broadcast industries pledged cooperation toward getting the digital transition to happen without major casualties, and both sides saw potential pluses.

For cable, it’s the possibility that it will gain subscribers who now watch TV over the air. For broadcasters, the transition’s success means that their signals keep coming into American homes without major hassles. Right now, it means educating a confused public.

“There are really two parts to this,” said Glenn Britt, president and CEO of Time Warner Cable, “consumer education and employee education. We have 36,000 employees, and almost all of them deal on a daily basis with the public.” It’s those employees who have to give the straight story to customers.

Cable, the NAB, PBS and others are all diving into an education campaign so consumers know what’s happening Feb. 17, 2009, the day broadcasters’ analog signals switch off at 11:59 p.m.

In short, consumers who get TV over the air need to get converter boxes (the government is offering coupons to defray the cost) that will switch the new digital signal back to analog for use on older sets. Consumers with cable or satellite are basically covered. Their cable or satellite provider will do that downconverting for them seamlessly. Or consumers can buy digital-capable TVs and get broadcast channels that way.

The trouble, said Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, is that explaining that in public-service announcements is no slam-dunk. “It’s a simple message, but it is impossible to convey in a 30-second spot,” he added.

At the conference, Paul McTear, president and CEO of broadcast group Raycom Media, and Brad Dusto, president of the Western region for Comcast Cable Communications, said they agreed on a “Lifeline” program that would offer over-the-air TV watchers a very basic-cable service that would provide local broadcast channels and perhaps a few cable networks, like C-SPAN, for around $12-$14 per month.

In return, Raycom produces educational messages to that effect that it airs on its channels, and Comcast operators run PSAs on theirs. Dusto said Comcast is willing to offer the same deal to stations wherever it operates the local cable system.

“We both have everything to lose if we don’t do this right,” McTear said, and, as the session progressed, it became evident that a lot of mutual cooperation is still needed.

“There’s a ton of problems,” Britt said, urging broadcasters to meet with local cable operators to go over their timetables and transmission requirements now, while there is still time for cable operators to assemble the necessary data and equipment they need to help make the digital ride smoother.

“We need to know an awful lot of what broadcasters take for granted,” Dusto said, because some necessary equipment may take cable operators 45-60 days to obtain. Dusto added, “If it doesn’t look great [after the transition], we’re going to get the phone calls” from disgruntled viewers, not the TV stations.

Several cable operators are also worried that some consumers who now get TV over the air will wait until just before the transition to make up their minds to get cable. That could cause them installation headaches.

But there are palpable fears that consumers won’t act or will be confused. McTear thinks older viewers suffer from “boxphobia” and really want to avoid the set-top box they will need. On the other hand, cable operators, including Britt, see the opportunity to convert some noncable users and, in the process, perhaps, to get them to sign up for Time Warner phone service, too.

The fact is that it’s hard to know how many Americans have spare sets that aren’t connected to cable now and what they will do with those sets as the analog switch-off comes to be. The same is true with 15 million or so viewers who get TV over the air. McSlarrow said he hopes by Jan. 1 that, while not knowing the exact universe he’s talking about, “99.9%” of those who need or want to make the switch.

Jack Sander, the ex-Belo broadcasting chief who is now chairman of the NAB board of directors, scaled that back to “well into the 90% range,” but said earlier, “Our goal is to have no set left behind.” By Jan. 1, he added, “It should be ‘clean-up’ by that time.”

For complete coverage of the 2008 NAB Show, click here.