Broadcast, cable need to discuss DTV carriage

Oct 28, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Was that an olive branch or a cactus that National Cable & Telecommunications Association President and CEO Robert Sachs was waving last week?
That’s the question TV station owners were pondering after Mr. Sachs appeared to indicate a willingness to discuss digital cable carriage obligations with broadcasters during a digital TV seminar hosted by the Association for Maximum Service Television in Washington.
“Ways to resolve these and other DTV issues might be found through greater dialogue between broadcasters and cable operators,” Mr. Sachs said in his speech. “We need to work together to ensure that the digital transition occurs as seamlessly as possible.”
In the immediate aftermath of Mr. Sachs’ remarks, Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said, “Our door is always open, and we’re willing to discuss cable carriage issues at any time with NCTA.”
The ground rules governing cable carriage of DTV signals during the transition have been an issue of major contention between broadcasters and cable operators. So a cable industry agreement to consider new carriage obligations would represent a breakthrough on the issue.
But Marc Smith, an NCTA spokesman, subsequently said his boss had meant only to suggest that broadcasters try to cut digital carriage deals with cable operators in the marketplace.
Mr. Sachs, according to Mr. Smith, had not intended to signal any willingness to consider an industrywide rule.
“Will you please come to us and talk to us instead of going to the FCC and Congress,” was another message the NCTA chief had attempted to communicate, Mr. Smith said. “That’s the extent of the olive branch Robert was extending.”
At least according to broadcasters, that’s the same pitch Mr. Sachs has been making all along-an approach that has resulted in few broadcasters getting their DTV signals carried by cable.
Said David Donovan, MSTV president, “If you want to clear the spectrum, the government needs to accelerate the off-air digital transition. If you want to accelerate the off-air digital transition, you must resolve the carriage issues.”
Also at the conference, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell predicted that the transition to DTV will “begin to accelerate exponentially in the next year or so.”
Many industry observers are skeptical about DTV’s prospects.
But Mr. Powell said he saw encouraging signs that the rollout may be gaining momentum, including Wal-Mart’s introduction of HDTV in its stores and USA Today’s labeling HDTV shows in its TV listings.
“The cold truth, however, is that we have no choice, and not just because Congress has mandated it-which is reason enough-but because the trends in technology and the forces of change will ultimately demand it of any provider that hopes to be relevant in the digital future,” Mr. Powell said.
Mr. Powell also said the FCC will compel the rollout with regulatory intervention, if necessary.
“There is no turning back and no retreat,” he said.