Quick! Join the Future

Programmers should exploit broadcasters' DTV multicast channels

A decade or so ago, when John Malone recognized the potential of digital technology, he challenged programmers to come up with new networks to fill the vast digital platform that cable operators would create. The programmers responded. Today, we have cable systems bulging with multiplexes and niche channels once thought impossibly narrow in scope—stuff like Wings, MTV2, Boomerang and Soapnet.

The broadcasting business doesn't have a John Malone to make the call to digital. So I guess it's up to me.

Here goes. Round up your best programming ideas and take them to your nearest broadcast network or major TV-station group.

Broadcasters have a digital platform, albeit much smaller than cable's, that is now virtually empty. They created the platform when they switched on their DTV stations.

Even after making room for prime time HDTV, each TV station will have room for at least three to five programming services. So a market with five stations will need as many as 25 channels. This so-called multicast capacity will eventually get filled. Why not by you?

Right now, broadcast DTV is a vacuum. Business, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

I wouldn't delay. Steve McClellan's front-page story this week says that NBC and its affiliates are working on a weather/news-update channel that would take one of the digital slots on all NBC stations. NBC Chairman Bob Wright says the network is also pondering a "sneak peek" channel to promote Universal movies and NBC shows and a movie channel. If all this comes to fruition, there will be no opportunity for outsiders on NBC O&Os or affiliates.

Meanwhile, DIC, the producer of popular children's animation, has let it be known that it is willing to create a children's network for digital broadcast. Not a bad idea, and one that should rattle the kids networks on cable, which believe they have a lock on the market.

I see DTV stations offering a mix of local and national services. The channel that NBC and its affiliates are cooking up is a great idea, one the other networks and their affiliates should immediately steal if they already haven't done so. It's basically local, but it will have room for national news and weather inserts.

But other digital broadcast services could be national, mimicking the best of cable. Or why not, in your town, start a multi-language channel that serves the ethnic groups in your market? (There are more people of Polish ancestry in Chicago than there are in Warsaw.) Surely, the networks will try a Spanish-dubbed version of their schedule, ending the need for the SAP button.

To make broadcast digital service viable, broadcasters probably need multicast must-carry—that is, an FCC rule that says the cable systems must carry local DTV channels in their entirety, regardless of how many individual program services they contain. Only with such a must-carry rule can programmers be assured that their digital broadcast service will have a long reach, at least as long as cable.

Wright has made multicast must-carry his top Washington priority. It's "very important," he told us a few weeks ago. "This country has the best free universal TV system in the world. To do anything to weaken that is a terrible mistake."

Multicast must-carry looked like a slam dunk a few weeks ago. It's not such a sure thing anymore. FCC Chairman Michael Powell has put off action so that the commission can attend to what he thinks is more important business. Plus, the commissioners are talking about loading up the must-carry rule with all kind of programming obligations.

There is a downside for programmers looking at digital broadcast: no license fees. Most networks on cable enjoy a second revenue stream in the form of monthly, per-sub payments. On broadcast, channels have to make do with just one, advertising. On the other hand, broadcast does have the potential of eventually reaching 100% of TV homes.

So this is the moment. Every station should be searching for channels to fill its digital platform, and every programmer should be thrusting its best ideas forward.

McClellan's story of the NBC's DTV plans ended with a quote from Roger Ogden, the chairman of the NBC affiliates board. It bears repeating: "I think we all realize that the world in which we operate single TV stations in individual markets is going to end, whether the other lines of distribution are duopolies, robust Internet sites with video or smart uses of the digital spectrum or all of the above. Now is the time to act. We all need to operate multiple platforms in our local communities to be survivors over the next decade."

John Malone couldn't have said it better.