NAB's Sander Strives to Quiet DTV Controversies

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Last week, the National Association of Broadcasters' board called for a timeout from negotiations for retransmission consents with cable and satellite providers, from Feb. 4 to the end of March of next year. The hope was that those sometimes-nasty contract battles wouldn't interfere with the broadcasters' switch from analog to digital on Feb. 17, 2009.

But the moment the NAB made its announcement, the American Cable Association (ACA), the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) and Dish TV all complained about this so-called “quiet period.”

Their problem was one of timing. Contracts with many stations conclude in December. And cable and satellite operators might be worried because the Super Bowl airs on NBC Feb. 1—three days before that “quiet period” begins. That gives some stations or station groups a powerful weapon to extract lucrative retransmission consents from operators. The ACA and Dish say they want a quiet period between December and May 31; the ACA has asked the FCC to help.

NAB Board Joint Chairman Jack Sander, the senior advisor to Belo Corp., is helping coordinate the NAB's digital conversion efforts, including the quiet period. He talks with B&C's P.J. Bednarski about what he calls the NAB's good intentions, bitterness caused by the retransmission consent debate, and progress he sees in the marketplace as the conversion looms. Following is an edited transcript.

Was anybody forcing the NAB's hand to carve out a quiet period, or did you do it because
cable operators were starting to make it an issue?

It was a little bit of both. Over the last few weeks, however, it was getting a lot more buzz and energy than maybe it even deserved. So the board had to ask, what's a logical quiet period? And with the ACA sending in a request to the FCC for six months, that clearly wasn't designed for the DTV transition. That was designed for other interests.

Any other interests besides retrans consent?

No, I don't think so. But we said, let's separate retransmission consent issues [from the DTV transition]. There are retransmission consent discussions going on 52 weeks a year. There's probably one going on today somewhere. So we decided, let's not make the quiet period confusing or disruptive to the viewer, and that's how we really got to it.

But the quiet period starts after hundreds of retransmission consents expire in December, and right after the Super Bowl. And it ends, essentially, right before the NCAA Final Four. Doesn't that give broadcasters an advantage?

Again, I think whatever period you picked [would have some problem]. What about this? What about that? I heard today that one of the commissioners was proposing Dec. 15 and I said, what's Dec. 15 have to do with the DTV transition? Nothing. What we really tried to do is say retransmission consent is a business issue between stations and cable and satellite providers. We're trying to stay focused on the DTV transition.

Wilmington, N.C., is going to shut off its analog signal for good in September. How's the education campaign doing down there? And there have been those simulated one-day turns at a lot of stations. What do you think of those?

I think we're going to learn a lot from Wilmington. But what we're going to do is accelerate these analog shutoff tests. Post-Labor Day, we're really going to encourage stations and even more markets to do this [for a day]. I think these tests are going to be critical to the overall success. We have to tell the consumer what is going to happen, let it happen and then tell them what just happened. [The simulated analog turnoff] is a very good tool, and it's one we didn't even have on our radar a year ago.

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