Quibbles and Bits: Rehr, McSlarrow Tussle Over Transition

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Appropriately coat-less as though stripped for some bare-knuckle debating, the heads of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the National Association of Broadcasters squared off Tuesday over the issues of cable's down conversion of broadcasters' HD signal and multi-cast must-carry.

The venue was a Maximum Service Television (MSTV) conference in Washington.

Broadcasters want cable to have to pass along a broadcaster's HDTV signal as is--saying that not to is to strip out material, while the cable industry wants that ability to downconvert them to standard-definition where capacity is an issue, saying the government should not be forcing what it sees as additional carriage obligations.

NAB President David Rehr said he thought there was "a lot of confusion" about the issue. "We at the NAB want cable to downconvert [DTV} to analog sets so they stay lit," he said, so we want downconversion there. What he said NAB doesn't want is discrimination in the provision of HDTV. "If you have HBO HD, you should be able to have HD channel 7 or 5 or 20. We see this as not a capacity issue, but a competitive issue from someone who has disproportionate market power as a distributor to benefit their own business."

Rehr used that as a jumping off point to lay into cable over the multi-casting must-carry issue, saying broadcasters just want to be able to send "as many bits through that tube as we send now. And what we don't like," he said, his voice raising "is cable companies going in and physically ripping out bits to use that capacity for something else," which he said was often "lower value programming."

NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow countered that NAb was swatting at a gnat. He said that the downconversion applied only to must-carry stations, and only two customers who did not have digital boxes. He said that cable companies agreed to carry analog and digital versions of stations during the transition, asking only that "on the margin, give us some flexibility to change an HD signal to SD signal to make sure we have the capacity to do this because of this dual carriage," and only for a five-year transitional period."

McSlarrow said he doubted there would be many must-carry stations that, in that five-year window will be pumping out HD. I could be proved wrong. And if they do, and it is compelling content, we're probably going to be carrying that too. The truth is, this is a gnat."

Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association, came down on the side of Rehr, saying it bothered him that cable might not deliver the "full, beautiful rich DHDTV signal," likening it to stripping out captions or color. He said that if the FCC thought digital multi-cast must-carry was unconstitutional--McSlarrow said it raised serious First Amendment issues--he should take it to court.

The association heads were talking about provisions in a prospective telecommunications bill rewrite that might surface in the next session, because all were pretty much in agreement that the current Senate and House telecom bills, which contain cable downconversion language, would not result in a bill this Congress.

Short of a lame duck miracle said MSTV President David Donovan, the bill doesn't look likely to pass. Shaprio was even more definitive, saying that the network neutrality issue had so polarized the debate that it would "definitely sink" the bill for this year.

Rehr said his six mileposts for an new telecommunications landscape were: 1) video franchise reform so that there were multiple platforms for broadcasters content; 2) " no "stripping" of broadcaster's digital signals by cable (the broadcaster's linguistic framing of DTV must-carry); 3) anti-discrimination (the broadcaster framing of no HDTV downconversion); 4) the FCC's approach to allowing unlicensed devices in White Spaces, which includes interference protections, rather than parallel White Spaces legislation; 5) the video flag; 6) and blocking any government effort to "pick sides" in retransmission consent negotiations.

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