The cable industry's 10 largest MSOs Wednesday pledged to carry at least five
digital channels in top markets beginning Jan. 1.
The cable operators' promise answers Federal Communications Commission
chairman Michael Powell's call for each of the major TV industry segments to do
a better job promoting the transition to digital television.
Compliance would be voluntary, but it's clear that Powell hopes the threat of
tougher rules from Congress or the FCC will prod broadcasters and
consumer-equipment makers to make formal commitments, too.
Thursday is the day when all TV broadcasters were to have begun offering digital
signals, although more than two-thirds of the industry's 1,196 full-power
commercial stations have said they wouldn't make the date.
Waivers for 525 have been granted, and the commission has asked another 334 to
explain why the deadline will not be met.
The committed MSOs will carry the signals of up to five commercial or public
TV stations or cable networks that provide high-definition programming during at
least 50 percent of their prime time schedule or a substantial portion of their
The programming will be carried at no cost to cable operators or
Cable operators pledging support are AT&T Broadband, Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corp., Charter Communications Inc., Cox Communications Inc.,
Adelphia Communications Corp., Cablevision Systems Corp., Mediacom
Communications Corp., Insight Communications Co. Inc. and CableOne Inc.
These 10 collectively serve more than 85 percent of cable customers in the
Powell praised the industry for stepping up to the plate.
Although the broadcasters and TV-set manufacturers have generally praised
Powell's plan, cable is the first industry sector to formally endorse it.
"I am pleased that the cable companies have embraced my challenge with solid
commitments, and I look forward to similar strides by the other industries in the
coming weeks," Powell said.
Other tenets of his proposal call for the "Big Four" broadcast networks, Home Box Office and
Showtime to provide HDTV or other "value-added" digital TV during 50 percent of prime
time this fall.
Local affiliates of the Big Four in top-100 markets would pass through
network digital TV with no signal degradation by Jan. 1, 2003.
By January 2004, TV manufacturers would equip one-half of their sets 36 inches and
larger with digital-TV tuners and 100 percent by Jan. 1, 2005.
All sets 13 inches and larger would be outfitted by Dec. 31, 2006.
The cable operators said they "may" offer to carry other value-added digital-TV
programming that would create an incentive for consumers to purchase digital-TV
The offer to carry broadcast stations requires stations to deliver a "good
quality signal" to the cable operator.
Broadcasters questioned whether the cable industry would be willing to carry
digital services other than high-definition, such as multicast channels,
interactive programming and electronic program guides.
The cable industry opposes broadcasters' efforts to define these services as
part of stations' "primary" digital signals.
After a station relinquishes its analog channel, the local cable operator
would be obligated to carry the entire primary digital signal, but the FCC has
not definitively defined what that would include beyond conventional
"We're pleased that the cable industry is moving toward carriage of
digital-broadcast signals," said Eddie Fritts, president of the National
Association of Broadcasters. "We look forward to the day when cable operators
carry all digital broadcast signals in their entirety."
Cable operators also announced that they would immediately place orders for
integrated HD set-top boxes with digital connectors and provide these boxes to
customers who request them.
Consumer-electronics companies were underwhelmed by the pledge. They have
long complained that cable's traditional suppliers will have the edge over
manufacturers that rely on sales to retail outlets.
The Consumer Electronics Association argued that the cable industry has
failed to complete operational standards necessary for all manufacturers to
offer cable-compatible digital set-top boxes and "plug-and-play" sets that don't
need set-top devices.
"Onerous" copy-protection standards demanded by Hollywood and the cable
industry also are blocking progress, the CEA said.
In the meantime, cable suppliers Scientific-Atlanta Inc., Motorola Inc. and
Pace Micro Technology plc will continue to grab market share.
"Continued delay and growth of the installed base of legacy cable digital
equipment may be foreclosing a retail market for cable-compatible products," the CEA