Cable takes the high-def high road

American viewers next year may finally get a good look at better television: high-definition television with its wide screen, rich colors and extraordinary detail.

Last Wednesday—as most TV stations were fending off criticism for failing to meet that day's deadline for inaugurating HDTV or some other digital TV service—cable gave HDTV its biggest push yet. The country's top 10 operators pledged to carry, beginning Jan. 1, at least five HD signals in large markets where they have upgraded their systems to digital.

"This is what we wanted to see," said former FCC Chairman Richard Wiley. "This is a big step forward." As a private attorney, Wiley led an industry task force that developed and persuaded the FCC to adopt standards for broadcasting HDTV and other digital services by TV stations.

"The more cable embraces the transition to HDTV, the better for consumers and for the overall transition," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents DTV set makers and other equipment manufacturers.

First demonstrated in the U.S. more than 20 years ago, HDTV has been languishing. In 1996, Congress gave each TV station a second channel with the understanding that it would build a digital TV station and broadcast HDTV. But, for myriad reasons, primarily economic but some technical, the broadcasters outside the largest markets have been slow to build their DTV stations. Most stations missed last week's deadline to have their DTV stations up and running.

But with last week's pledge, cable picks up the HDTV ball, making good on broadcasters' promise.

The cable operators' promise answers FCC Chairman Michael Powell's April 4 appeal for each of the major TV-industry segments to do a better job promoting the transition to digital television. Compliance is voluntary, but it's clear Powell hopes the threat of tougher rules from Congress or the FCC will prod broadcasters and consumer equipment makers to make formal commitments, too.

Powell asked the cable operators to offer five channels of HD or other "value-added" DTV programming by Jan. 1.

Other points of Powell's proposal call for the Big Four broadcast nets, HBO and Showtime to provide HDTV or other "value-added" DTV during 50% of prime time this fall.

Local affiliates of the Big Four in top 100 markets would pass through network DTV with no signal degradation by Jan. 1, 2003. By Jan. 2004, TV manufacturers would equip half of their sets 36 inches and larger with DTV tuners and 100% by Jan. 1, 2005. All sets 13 inches and larger would be outfitted by Dec. 31, 2006.

In addition to promoting digital TV, Powell's goal is to recover each TV station's original analog channel so he can auction them off and fill government coffers. But, by law, broadcasters don't have to give up their analog channels until 85% of homes have DTV sets. The way things were going, Powell feared that the give-back day might never come.

Broadcasters and TV set manufactures have been generally supportive of his plan. National Association of Broadcasters President Eddie Fritts said television operators "embrace the principles" during his group's convention last month. But agency officials say they are still waiting for formal commitments from those industries as will as direct broadcast satellite providers.

Powell praised the industry for stepping up. "I am pleased that the cable companies have embraced my challenge with solid commitments, and I look forward to similar strides by the other industries in the coming weeks," he said.

But interest in HD isn't merely a goodwill concession to help the government achieve its goal of moving to an all-digital TV world and recouping broadcasters' original analog spectrum. By carrying HD programming, cable operators hope to drive the sale of digital cable boxes and keep pace with their satellite-TV rivals.

"HD is a wonderful product," says Glen Britt, CEO of Time Warner Cable, which is already offering some HD in most of its systems. "It's something customers like. We see this as a new service like video-on-demand, home networking and multiple ISPs."

"There's a very interesting competition developing between cable and satellite to offer better pictures and features," said Legg Mason analyst Blair Levin.

The MSOs will carry at least five DTV broadcast stations or cable networks that provide high- definition programming during at least 50% of their prime time schedule or a substantial portion of their broadcast week. And, they said, they will not charge the programmers for the carriage.

Cable operators making the HDTV pledge: AT&T Broadband, AOL Time Warner, Comcast, Charter Communications, Cox Communications, Adelphia Communications, Cablevision Systems, Mediacom Communications, Insight Communications and CableOne. Together, they serve more than 85% of U.S. cable customers, or more than 59 million homes.

How many of those 59 million homes actually will be offered multiple high-definition channels remains an open question.

Even though Powell suggested that the cable operators offer HD on all cable systems with 750 MHz of bandwidth, the operators said they would limit the service to systems serving more than 25,000 subscribers. Then the question becomes a little like the Clintonesque definition of what "is'' is: If the operators define a "system" according to groups of subscribers served by an individual headend, then many major metro households served by AT&T Broadband, Charter, Adelphia, Mediacom and Cable One—which have built their operations in part through acquisitions of many smaller systems—may not be seeing HD anytime soon.

But officials from Insight and Cox said the subscriber floor would exempt fewer than 5% of their customers.

FCC officials, however, said they aren't worried by the extra limit tacked on by the cable operators. "We weren't expecting every single cable system in small town America to jump on board," said Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree.

Plus, some smaller cable systems may add HD programming as their parent companies link operations to joint headends via fiber connections, industry officials say. "This is not meant to preclude anyone from offering HD to their subscribers," said Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

Whether subscribers will have access to HD-ready cable boxes is another uncertainty. Although the operators said they would immediately place orders for integrated HD set-top boxes with digital connectors and provide them to customers who request, one DTV expert predicted the devices won't be available until the end of 2003 because of the manufacturers' lag time.

The MSOs also pledged to advertise and market HD and any other "value-added DTV programming" carried by a "broad variety" of promotions. NCTA also reiterated its March pledge to jointly promote HD with broadcasters and equipment makers.

Although the cable operators specifically pledged to carry HD programming, the announcement did not spell out whether that means only the highest-utilized HDTV resolution standard, 1080i, or lower-resolution formats too.

Each cable system will decide for itself which type of transmission qualifies as "high definition," said Lynne Elander, vice president of video product management at Cox Communications. Cox for the most part will insist on 1080i, although she said a deal with Fox would be considered. Fox offers its prime time lineup in 480p, which some critics say is little more than a conventional picture in a wide-screen format.

Insight Communications hasn't any set policy. "We're going to have discussion with networks on different formats," said Michael Willner, company president and NCTA chairman.

Still, new high-definition offerings from cable-owned programming will pressure broadcast networks to produce more-compelling HD programming. Only CBS and ABC are producing significant amounts of their prime time schedule in 1080i.

That standard allows 1080 lines per screen. Although 1080i is delivered via "interlaced" transmission that allow only half of the lines to show on a screen at any particular instant, the bandwidth saving allows more lines to be transmitted than "progressive" transmissions requiring lower resolution, such as 720p or 480p.

NBC has limited its regularly scheduled HD offerings so far to 1080i versions of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno
and Crossing Jordan.
NBC Sports also has provided HD coverage of the Olympics, several NBA games and the upcoming Triple Crown horse races. The broadcast and consumer equipment industries wasted no time critiquing cable's promise, and both cautioned they see much to be desired.

After an initial rush of enthusiasm for any sign of FCC leadership on DTV, broadcasters are chagrined that the FCC's latest steps are aimed more at promoting consumer interest in DTV generally and the sale of high-definition sets specifically than in helping broadcasters get carriage for their new services.

Cable systems conceivably may shun local stations and carry only the high-definition services of cable-owned programming networks rather than local stations and still be in compliance with Powell's plan.

In mid-April, a group of broadcasters pledged to offer network digital feeds (HD or otherwise) but called on Powell to add their signals to cable's benchmarks. "We need assurances that these enhanced services ultimately will reach the public," the heads of LIN, Benedek, Raycom and two public TV groups wrote in a letter to Powell.

But nearly all cable-industry officials questioned last week said it would be hard to imagine any major system that doesn't carry local broadcasters' digital programming. "I'm very anxious to carry HD signals from broadcasters," Willner said, "to put together a package attractive to consumers."

"You will see a large number of customers delivered with digital broadcast programming over cable plants," said Cox's Elander.

Consumer electronics companies were underwhelmed by cable operators' pledge to offer HD set-top boxes. They have long complained that cable's traditional suppliers will have the edge over manufacturers that rely on sales to retail outlets.

The Consumer Electronics Association argues that the cable industry has failed to complete operational standards necessary for all manufacturers to offer cable-compatible digital set-top boxes and "plug-and-play" sets, which don't need set-top devices. "Onerous" copy-protection standards demanded by Hollywood and the cable industry also are blocking progress, CEA said in a written statement following the cable industry announcement.

Meanwilee, suppliers Scientific-Atlanta, Motorola and Pace will continue to grab market share, the trade group says. "Continued delay and the growth of the installed base of legacy cable digital equipment," CEA said, "may be foreclosing a retail market for cable-compatible products."

The cable's pledge comes after several moves by operators to launch HD service.

Time Warner Cable has launched HDTV service to nearly 5 million homes in more than 40 markets, including New York City, Orlando, Houston, Minneapolis and Raleigh, N.C. "We've been very aggressive about HDTV already," said CEO Britt. "Ninety-eight percent of our customers can receive HDTV today. Thirty-eight of our big-city clusters carry HDTV today."

Charter Communications plans HDTV tiers in seven markets, including Alhambra/Pasadena and Glendale/Burbank, Calif.; University Park, Texas; South Miami, Fla.; Birmingham, Ala.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; and St. Louis.

Cox is testing digital services in Omaha, Neb., and Las Vegas.

It was no accident that the cable industry set itself up for Washington Beltway praise at the precise moment broadcasters were taking flak for most TV stations' missing the government-imposed deadline.

The timing of the announcement, issued in a letter to Powell from NCTA's Sachs, allowed the cable industry to take a shot at frequent antagonists in the broadcast industry without mentioning woes of TV stations specifically. More than two-thirds of the industry's more than 1,300 commercial stations informed the FCC they wouldn't make the May 1 deadline. Of the 388 stations on the air with digital last week, about 28% are taking advantage of relaxed FCC rules that allow them to transmit at power levels lower than needed to reach their entire coverage area.

Powell offered his initiative to eliminate some of the roadblocks that are stalling the DTV transition, including the lack of cable carriage and cable-interoperable sets. Broadcasters face the only legal mandates to launch DTV. Equipment makers are reluctant to install DTV tuners into a majority of sets until there is sufficient consumer demand to drive set sales. Cable systems have been loath to give broadcast DTV channels preferential carriage treatment.

When it comes to other services—such as multicast channels, interactive programming and electronic program guides—that broadcasters may offer in addition to or in lieu of HDTV, cable operators made it clear they are of no mind to carry those services for free. "We will negotiate acceptable business terms for those services," Elander said.

NAB's Fritts said he is pleased by the cable initiative. "We look forward to the day when cable operators carry all-digital broadcast signals in their entirety."