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Cable Clams Up on Its NextGen TV Recalcitrance

In the six weeks since Charter Communications executives met with senior Federal Communications Commission staffers to explain their reluctance to carry ATSC 3.0 ("NextGen TV") signals, a continuing flurry of discussions has simmered - usually couched in questions about why Charter picked this moment to voice its opposition to carrying the value-added broadcast signals. The Next Generation TV rulemaking proposal has been festering at the FCC for nearly two years as major broadcasters, such as Sinclair Broadcasting Group and the Pearl TV Group (which includes Cox Media Group, Hearst Television Inc., Nexstar Media Group and TEGNA, among others), run field trials to test how the technology works.

Charter's primary points to the FCC were that it doesn't intend to carry 3.0 signals since broadcasters have not yet settled on standards and that many of the proposed auxiliary services (such as wireless data transmission) don't fit with retransmission agreements.

Analysts contend that Charter's meeting was "a ploy to slow down" the ATSC 3.0 process. They claimed to be perplexed since cable equipment will be relatively inexpensive; some believed that the Charter initiative is part of a cable industry scheme to retain data transmission businesses and impede broadcasters' entry into that sector.

Skeptics wondered about Charter's timing, since the current ATSC 3.0 plan envisions at least a five-year period during which local TV stations will continue to transmit the existing ATSC 1.0 (high definition) digital signals that cable systems currently retransmit. 

Charter's depiction of how broadcast repacking will affect cable feeds.

Charter's depiction of how broadcast repacking will affect cable feeds.

Moreover, at the FCC meeting, Charter demonstrated the problems that will arise in the Phoenix area (site of Pearl TV's NextGen TV field test), although Charter has only a small piece of the Phoenix cable market. In fact, it used illustrations developed originally by Cox Communications, which is the largest cable operator in that market.

Shortly after Charter's "ex parte" disclosure of its late-July FCC meeting was disclosed, ONE Media 3.0 LLC, Sinclair's high-tech development subsidiary, responded by accusing Charter of confusing standards with flexible uses for non-television delivery of data.

"If a MVPD [Multichannel Video Programming Distributor] and broadcaster are motivated to add an ATSC 3.0 delivered feature or service to the MVPD’s platform, implementation will be achieved in a reasonable timeframe and based on mutual business objectives," said ONE Media Executive VP Jerald Fritz. He pointed out that, "Broadcasters have been working closely with equipment vendors to establish basic television service profiles."

Pearl TV Managing Director Anne Schelle told Multichannel News that her group has been working with CableLabs to explore "3.0 implementation in many different ways with cable." She acknowledged that it will take "more time," but like Fritz, Schelle noted that 1.0 transmissions will continue for several years.

A week later, the Engineering Committee of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers sent a message to Advanced TV Standards Committee President Madeline Noland which was fundamentally a "thanks but no thanks" response to an invitation to begin working on carriage of the 3.0 format via cable. In its August 13 memo (obtained by Multichannel News), the SCTE committee said it "appreciates this request, which reflects a history of productive collaboration between ATSC and SCTE," but that it does not "feel that the ATSC 3.0 specification in its current form is ready for work in SCTE."

"It would be better for us to defer initiation of the work until such time as the broadcast industry efforts are completed," SCTE said.

As for the Charter executives who made their presentation to the FCC, they have clammed up.

"We have no comment beyond the ex parte filing. It speaks for itself," a Charter official told MCN.

In response to a query to NCTA about its stance on NextGen TV, a spokesman forwarded the Association's 18-month-old comments to the FCC when the Commission opened its NextGen TV rulemaking. He told MCN that NCTA would have "nothing more to say" about the current situation.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Broadcasters had a succinct, pithy response to the Charter meeting, saying it " raises issues that are simply irrelevant."

NAB Executive VP Dennis Wharton reaffirmed that MVPDs are not required to carry Next Gen signals and broadcasters will be required to simulcast ATSC 1.0 signals for a considerable period.

"The only apparent motivation behind Charter’s filing is its desire to stifle competitive innovation,” Wharton said.