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Cable group decries digital TV policy

The industry wants government to stay out of mandating how digital television service should be introduced to the public.

The cable industry wants the government to stay out of digital television.

But Washington may have to step into the fray if cable operators and the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) can't settle their differences with the broadcast networks over the issue of how to send digital TV signals through cable systems. The issue threatens to delay the introduction of digital television.

Digital TV is a crucial concern for cable companies, broadcasters, the computer industry, and the government because it defines what all TVs will ultimately become and also paves the way for new markets such as PC-TVs.

With Digital TV, users will be able to receive a combination of high-quality video and audio that isn't possible with today's analog TVs or most personal computers. Digital TV also opens the door for convergence of TV and computer technologies. Computer-like TVs, for example, could tap into interactive channels and boast email and Web browsing capabilities.

A number of cable operators claim that they don't have enough system capacity to send the data-intensive high-definition digital TV signals along with the standard analog TV signals for regular programming too. On the other side, broadcasters view it as a refusal to carry their programming, and are asking the government to require cable operators to carry both types of signals because some 68 percent of Americans get broadcast content through cable systems.

Both sides are wrangling over "must carry" regulations, which refer to legal rulings that require cable companies to send local analog broadcasting signals to customers. Broadcasters want these rules to apply to digital television as well, but the NCTA, which represents cable systems operators and programmers on policy issues affecting the industry, balked at involving regulators during a press briefing yesterday.

Association president Decker Anstrom said the cable industry opposes any "must carry" rules because cable subscribers will have to give up one regular TV channel for each new digital channel.

"Imposing 'must carry' now will lead to many cable customers losing cable [programming] they now receive...Only the few who buy a new, expensive digital TV set [get] a few hours a week of [high-definition] programming in return," Anstrom said. "That would be a foolish policy."

Cable operators are rebuilding systems to increase channel capacity, but efforts are highly variable depending on region, the NCTA said, making any blanket rulings burdensome. Anstrom suggested that local agreements between broadcasters and cable companies will obviate the need for government intervention.

"We carry 98 percent of broadcasters' analog signals without 'must carry.' We want to carry the programming our customers want to watch. We expect strong partnerships...to emerge during this process," Anstrom insisted. "[This] transition is complicated. We should not rush to bad decisions and we should not get the government involved in these decisions."

But if there are any delays looming because of the battle, the Federal Communications Commission is ready to step in.

In a recent speech at the National Association of Broadcasters convention, FCC chairman William Kennard reemphasized that the agency will enforce the mandated transition to digital television. Under a timetable adopted last year, major network affiliates in the ten largest markets must offer digital television signals by May 1, 1999. Smaller markets will need to be online with digital TV by November of 1999, with all remaining commercial stations converted by the year 2002.

The computer industry, meanwhile, anxiously awaits the transition to digital television for a chance to sell a new category of information appliances and PC-TV devices that meld TV programming with Web content as demand in their core markets seems to be leveling off.

Computer industry heavyweights such as Compaq, Microsoft, and Intel might try again to force the issue by shipping digital TV-ready PCs to influence the use of computer-friendly digital TV formats, thereby becoming the de facto platform for DTV viewing, but users could end up looking at a blank screen if they do.