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1st National Diginet Faces Single Hurdle

Apr 26, 2004  •  Post A Comment

There’s only one cloud on the horizon as NBC and its affiliates work toward a soft launch this fall of the NBC Weather Alert Channel.
“The only issue that makes it tricky is access,” said Brandon Burgess, executive VP for business development at NBC. The network two weeks ago, with the support of ABC and CBS, delivered to the Federal Communications Commission and elected officials a white paper refuting the cable industry’s claim that operators do not have the capacity to multicast local stations’ digital signals.
The NBC Weather Alert Channel is a 24-7, 50-50 partnership designed by NBC and its affiliates to use local stations’ digital spectrum and qualify as the first national digital network (TelevisionWeek, Nov. 17, 2003). It would also be the eighth national English-language broadcast network.
“Carriage of all free over-the-air digital broadcast programs in any given market will consume no more than 11 [percent to] 12 percent of a 750 megahertz digital cable system’s capacity, approximately one-third of the limit for local television stations,” said the report, citing National Cable & Telecommunications Association data indicating 85 percent of cable subscribers in the country are served by systems of 750 MHz or greater capacity.
“For years they used our signal to build their consumer franchise,” Mr. Burgess said. “We would not occupy a lot of their capacity. We would create an attractive product. We would not cut into their cost base. We would just try to get it advertising-financed. Maybe down the road, if the service is attractive, maybe you could have a subscriber-fee conversation if you didn’t get enough revenue going, but I don’t think that will be the case. The Weather Channel seems to have a nice business going. So I don’t think that will be necessary.”
Unlike the Weather Channel, the NBC Weather Alert Channel will emphasize local material delivered by familiar local faces.
“We think [this concept] has the potential to be a real business,” said Mr. Burgess, the network executive who worked to get the futures committee cranking with affiliate board members, including Hearst-Argyle Executive VP Terry Mackin, who succeeded KUSA-TV President and General Manager Roger Ogden as chairman of the affiliates board April 14.
“Affiliates are happy with the progress we’ve made,” Mr. Mackin said. The first project approved was Olympics.com, which will give affiliates significant local stakes in the Web site to be launched this spring.
The NBC Weather Alert Channel is the second futures committee project to get the green light.
How many stations are on board for the soft launch and first phase is uncertain.
But the biggest uncertainty is whether digital must-carry is achieved. “I don’t think this will be much of a business without carriage,” Mr. Burgess said.
At the meeting with affiliate board members in New York earlier this month, NBC Chairman Bob Wright said, “We need digital must-carry. We need it to protect our investments in digital. We need it to move forward with the digital transition. And our viewers need it to reap the benefits of digital TV.”
Mr. Burgess strives to stay positive about the digital weather channel, which is likely to use NBC News Channel facilities in Charlotte, N.C., and marketing resources in New York.
“I am actually hopeful that issue will go away and people will focus on what these projects are about: delivering content, branded content to consumers and taking brands and extending them,” he said. “For us and our affiliates, weather and news is just a logical extension-we’ve done it twice before, in CNBC and MSNBC.”