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Cable leader calls for cooperation

Broadcasters and cable operators need to cooperate with PC companies and the consumer electronics manufacturers to build a viable infrastructure for digital TV.

LAS VEGAS--In a luncheon address today, the president of a major cable industry consortium urged National Association of Broadcasters convention attendees to cooperate with other industries in building a "national digital broadcast system" in order to speed the rollout of next-generation digital television services.

Dr. Richard Green, president of CableLabs, said broadcasters and cable operators alike need to work in conjunction with PC companies and the consumer electronics manufacturers to build a viable infrastructure for digital television.

"In the competition for viewers, there should be winners and losers, but in the development of an infrastructure for digital television there should be a win-win [scenario]," Green stated.

New technologies and standards can't be developed in a vacuum: If they are, the market for digital television will be unnecessarily and artificially hampered. Greene pointed to Cable Labs as an example of how companies can work together to bring new technologies to market. CableLabs is the cable industry's research consortium, working on projects such as the OpenCable initiative, which aims to develop a set of hardware and software standards for digital set-top boxes.

To date, the rollout of digital TV has been marked by internecine warfare between the various industries over standards for the display of high resolution programming. In the absence of any broad agreements, the U.S. government stepped in last year to tell broadcasters they had to offer digital TV starting in 1999 or else face punishment.

Many technical details about the rollout of service remain. Cable companies and broadcasters in particular have been dickering over whether cable companies can carry bandwidth-intensive, interlaced scan HDTV (high-definition digital TV) signals. A number of cable operators prefer the computer industry's progressive scan format for program transmission.

Green promised that the cable industry would send to its customers any digital TV signal in its original format, but also asked that a viable business plan is formulated before "extravagant" plans for new services are floated. This comes against a backdrop of earlier proposals that would have reduced the signal to a lower resolution format.

Working cooperatively across industries is imperative, Green emphasized, because the various industries are converging and the formerly staid world of television is undergoing momentous upheaval. New technologies can't be used to simply invent new markets, he cautioned. "We've learned you can lose a lot of money following the false god of technology," he said.

He also cited sea changes in the industry that will make digital TV resemble the computer industry in some respects. "Like it or not, those of us involved in TV are now dealing with Moore's law changes"--the doubling of processing power every 18 months--as the PC industry becomes more involved in digital television.

Green's wish for more cooperation may already be partially fulfilled. Earlier in the week, Intel senior vice president Ron Whittier said that a variety of participants in the television, consumer electronics, and PC industries are working to enable content to be created once and then delivered over cable, satellite, DVD, and other media outlets. The idea is to facilitate the growth of these increasingly interrelated markets, another theme that Green emphasized on in his presentation.