Thumbs (sort of) up on DTV

A cautious cable is expected to join the DTV transition club

Cable operators haven't mailed in the formal RSVP to Michael Powell's DTV invitation, but it looks like they're coming to the party. Broadcasters and equipment manufacturers have already agreed to work with the Powell plan.

Although the National Cable & Telecommunications Association isn't likely to give an official reply until its convention in May, positive vibes were coming from association leaders last week.

"We can be very supportive," said Insight Communications President Michael Willner last week as he gave reporters his take on FCC Chairman Powell's plan to spur the DTV transition.

"We've sent it out to our board and there are discussions taking place within the industry," said NCTA President Robert Sachs.

Before jumping on board, Sachs wants the FCC to spell out:

  • Whether broadcasters'digital programming will have stronger carriage rights than cable nets'.
  • If they carry a broadcaster's digital signals, must they also carry multicast channels and electronic program guides?
  • Could broadcasters force cable to pay for digital programming?
  • Would cable be barred from charging subscribers more for high-definition set-top boxes?

FCC staffers, conceding that the plan floated April 4 was loosely worded, say there's no reason for cable to worry.

Broadcasters get no preference and no guaranteed compensation, and the controversial question over what actually constitutes a broadcaster's "primary" signal would be left for another day. As for rates on set-top boxes needed for HDTV, they point out that Powell's plan is entirely voluntary.

"It's in their interest to be leaders in the transition," said FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree.

Powell's plan requires broadcasters and TV makers to step up by airing high-definition and "value-added" digital programming and phasing-in digital tuners for all sets. Cable systems that have upgraded to add digital tiers are being asked to carry, "at no cost," at least five channels that offer digital programming during 50% of prime time.

Meanwhile, nearly all operators have announced plans to offer high-definition in 50 markets.

Pay-TV networks are gearing up to provide digital programming so cable won't have to rely on broadcasters to meet their DTV quota. HBO and Showtime each provide HDTV channels; other networks are in line.

Discovery announced last week it will launch a 24-hour net that will draw on more than 115 completed HD titles. Discovery HD Theater "should further the national goal of establishing digital television as the transmission medium of the future," said Jim Robbins, chief executive of Cox Communications.

Digital pioneer Mark Cuban said HDNet will add three high-definition channels to the one carried by satellite provider DirecTV. "You're going to see cable MSOs and DBS providers push harder," he said, "and they will want TVs to look good."

Though cable can ignore broadcasters' digital signals under the current plan, it may yet have to add those signals before the transition is complete. The FCC's dual digital must-carry proceeding has yet to be resolved.

Last week a group of broadcasters pledged to work with Powell's "bold plan" by carrying digital programming but called on him to include broadcast programming in cable's benchmarks. "We need assurances that these enhanced services ultimately will reach the public," wrote several company chiefs, including LIN Benedek and Raycom plus two educational and public TV organizations, in an April 18 letter to Powell.

Other broadcasters even read some support for their position in programming's importance in the Powell plan. The commission at least is telling cable that carriage of some type of digital programming is essential to the DTV transition, said David Donovan, lobbyist for DTV broadcasters.