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New NAB digital strategy

Oct 29, 2001  •  Post A Comment

It’s an analog world after all.
The National Association of Broadcasters executive committee last week quietly asked the NAB staff to pursue a new digital TV carriage scheme that would free cable operators from any obligation to carry broadcasters’ DTV signals during the transition to digital, sources said.
Under its long-standing existing position, NAB has been lobbying for so-called “dual carriage”-a proposal that would require cable operators to carry both a broadcaster’s analog and digital TV signals during the transition to DTV.
The new total-carriage approach, which sources said won the support of the NAB executive committee in a confidential session in Washington last week, would require cable operators to continue carrying only the analog TV signals during the transition, something they are already required to do.
But in turn, cable operators, according to the concept, would also be required to carry all 6 MHz of a broadcaster’s digital signal after the transition.
The Federal Communications Commission has proposed to require cable operators to carry only the part of the DTV signal used to transmit the broadcaster’s primary, free over-the-air offering.
The new total-carriage proposal would require operators to carry everything offered on the DTV signal, whether that consists of a single high-definition TV signal, several compressed standard TV signals or an electronic sandwich of TV signals and data.
In the interests of giving the NAB staff “flexibility,” sources said, the executive committee also made clear that Eddie Fritts, NAB president and CEO, should feel free to continue lobbying publicly for dual carriage. But under his new marching orders, Mr. Fritts, according to sources, is also supposed to be open to negotiating deals that would include total carriage.
One source close to the issue said the total-carriage package envisioned by some broadcasters would also include assurances that all new TV sets would include DTV tuners and that cable TV equipment would be compatible with DTV broadcast needs. “It’s a three-legged stool,” one source said.
But another source said other broadcasters think the industry’s initial goal should be to at least win total carriage on its own. “We’ve got to start someplace,” this source said.
Sources also said the NAB executive committee has charged the association staff with adding flesh to the new carriage proposal. The full NAB TV board is expected to be asked to give its blessing to the new strategy this week.
The total-carriage proposal, which has been under study by an NAB task force for months, was originally spurred by the realization that the NAB’s dual-carriage campaign appeared doomed.
Among other things, cable operators have been arguing that dual carriage is an affront to the First Amendment that could force cable operators to slash popular cable programming to make room for the new broadcast offerings-an argument that seems to have won cable sympathy at the FCC and on Capitol Hill.
“The dual-carriage thing seems to be a road nobody is traveling,” a broadcaster said.
Broadcasters also say cable operators will be hard-pressed to argue against the total-carriage proposal because it won’t require operators to devote new bandwidth to broadcast signals; it only requires operators to switch to carrying the broadcaster’s DTV signal after the transition-and to ensure that all of a cable system’s subscribers are capable of receiving it.
At deadline, representatives of the NAB and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association were declining comment. But total carriage was getting good reviews from some broadcast industry leaders.
“It is the way to go,” said Gary Chapman, chairman, president and CEO of LIN Television. “There’s no doubt about it.”
A cable industry source, however, said the proposal would be opposed by cable.
“The consumer is not well served by some type of federally guaranteed right of access,” a cable industry source said. “It’s best served by allowing the market to work. We’re in the business of giving our customers services they want at a good value.”#