Cable Ops Suffer ‘Scotch And Maalox’ Moments

Orlando – Several cable operators Monday described their “scotch and Maalox” moments so far  -- their difficulties -- in trying to work with local TV stations to plan for the transition to all-digital broadcast signals next February.

In an effort to try to ease the looming digital TV transition, Massillon Cable TV in Ohio is trying to organize a summit for local cable systems and TV stations in the Cleveland market, so they can better coordinate their efforts, Massillon Cable president Bob Gessner said during the opening panel at The Independent Show here.

“It’s still in the works now,” Gessner said of the potential powwow, noting that to date regarding the DTV transition, “The communication coming to us from the broadcasters is not extremely helpful. They really haven’t told us much at all.”

Gessner was part of a session called “A Front Row to the DTV Transition,” on which several panelists talked about their planning for the transition, and cited some of the troubles they have found in even trying to find out exactly what local broadcasters in their markets are doing, let alone work or coordinate efforts with them.

Panel moderator Jeff Abbas, president of the National Cable Television Cooperative, kicked off the session by noting that David Donovan, president of the broadcast group the Association for Maximum Television, has predicted that the actual evening of the all-digital transition, Feb. 17, will be a “a Scotch and Maalox night.” And several of Monday’s panelists said they already having those moments.

Several panelists said that in some cases smaller TV stations in their markets, independents, still have not made clear their strategies for the looming digital transition from analog to all-digital broadcast signals – or aren’t informing their local cable operator about their plans.

For example, Gary Shorman, president and CEO of Eagle Communications, said that some broadcasters in his markets decided to make the all-digital conversion early, in the next few weeks.

“We found out about it through the media,” Shorman said. “They [the stations] all of a sudden put out a news release saying, ‘We’re going to do this conversion,’ and, of course, there had been no information sent out to us to make this happen. Now we’re scrambling.”

Said Shorman, “So the Maalox season actually started a couple of weeks ago, where we found out we have to do some conversions in some relatively rural systems…You have to find the antennaes, you have to find the gear, you have to make sure it hits and can actually receive the signal.”   

Patty McCaskill, Suddenlink’s senior vice president of programming, said that in the fourth quarter last year her company created a DTV transition team, and put together a database with information about all the broadcasters in its markets so Suddenlink could start reaching out to those stations regarding the DTV transition.

“At this point, we have ordered the equipment for 250 headends…but there are a lot of broadcasters who haven’t figured out what they’re going to do,” McCaskill said.

During a question-and-answer session, a representative of the NCTA who was in the audience, Lisa Schoenthaler, vice president of association affairs and rural/smaller systems, noted that her trade group has been trying to foster cooperation between cable operators and broadcasters for the digital transition.

The NCTA has done two Webinars with broadcasters, as well as coordinating a meeting in Oregon and has one set for Aug. 19 in West Virginia.

In response to a question, Abbas said that it would not be a wise move politically for cable operators to try to hold back helping broadcasters in the DTV transition as leverage in retransmission-consent negotiations later this year. Abbas advised against using the DTV transition “as a sword” for that.

Several panelists said they expect a lift in subscribers as a result of the switch to all-digital broadcast signals.

“We do look at it as an opportunity to gain subs,” said panelist Pat Deville, vice president of programming for Buckeye CableSystem in Toledo, Ohio. “Our owner thinks we should be able too increase or sub base by about 10,000, which would be about a 6.7% increase. That’s aggressive, not to say it won’t happen Allan (referring to Buckeye parent head Allan Block).”   

In addition, Deville added that Buckeye has also created special DTV transition informational flyers for customers considered “most vulnerable” to be being negatively impacted by the move to all-digital broadcast signals, namely minorities and low-income people.