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Comcast, CBS Have HD Issues

Comcast Corp. claims it isn't carrying CBS's HDTV signals because the broadcaster has failed to make them available "at no cost," according to the MSO's filing with the Federal Communications Commission last week.

The Tiffany Network denies it's seeking cash compensation for the HDTV signals of its owned-and-operated TV stations. Rather, CBS says carriage of its HDTV signals is tied in with retransmission-consent talks with the mega-MSO.

"I can certainly confirm that we are in retransmission-consent negotiations with Comcast regarding the carriage of our digital and analog signals," a CBS spokesman said. "We hope to conclude those negotiations promptly in a mutually beneficial way, that will make our signals available to all the viewers that we share."

Fox in HD

Also last week, News Corp. told the Federal Communications Commission — which requested updates from media companies on the broadcast transition to digital TV — that its Fox television network was taking the plunge into HDTV.

That's a major change, as Fox had been sitting back while ABC, CBS and NBC aggressively moved into HDTV. CBS, for example, provides high-definition versions of all its scripted primetime shows.

In a June 23 letter to FCC Media Bureau chief W. Kenneth Ferree, Comcast described how it is trying to expedite the rollout of HDTV in its major markets, as part of cable's voluntary commitment to FCC chairman Michael Powell.

Comcast's letter also noted that Comcast is only carrying the HDTV signal of one CBS owned-and-operated TV station, WBBM-TV in Chicago. Comcast said that with the exception of WBBM, "CBS has not yet made its owned-and-operated stations available for carriage 'at no cost,' as is specifically contemplated in the Powell plan. Accordingly, Comcast is not currently carrying the HDTV signals of CBS's O&O stations other than WBBM."

Powell has been encouraging a cost-free launch of HDTV, at least at first.

Comcast spokeswoman Jenni Moyer declined to comment on what specific compensation, or "cost," CBS is seeking for its HDTV signals, or if it was tied to retransmission consent, as the broadcaster claimed.

"We do look forward to being able to offer CBS HDTV programming to our customers in the future," Moyer said.

She wouldn't comment on why WBBM-TV's HDTV signal wound up being carried by Comcast. But according to CBS, WBBM-TV has a unique prior agreement with Comcast's system in Chicago, which is a former AT&T Broadband system.

"It has to do with our relationship with AT&T before the merger," the CBS spokesman said. "There is a technical issue … so we worked out an agreement that allowed us to use digital there."

CBS owns 16 TV stations, in markets such as New York, Boston, Baltimore, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami and Denver.

Cox Communications is currently negotiating with CBS about carriage of its HDTV signals, and declined to comment last week on the terms the broadcaster is seeking.

Several years ago, Time Warner Cable reached an agreement with CBS to carry the HDTV signals of its owned-TV stations. But the MSO declined to discuss the terms of that deal.

Comcast's FCC comments were filed two days before News Corp. filed its HDTV plans with federal officials. Rupert Murdoch's company revealed that its Fox broadcast network will be transmitting half of its primetime schedule in HDTV by the 2004-2005 season.

Fox already has carriage deals in place with some cable operators for its digital signal, according to a broadcast-network spokesman.

"Any cable operators that we haven't yet negotiated with over digital carriage, we will ultimately do so during the course of our next round of retransmission-consent negotiations," the spokesman said.

He added that it is premature "to even begin discussing what the terms of those deals might be, or even what we will be proposing in those negotiations."

A TWC deal

Fox Cable Networks Group has already reached an agreement with Time Warner Cable to provide HDTV telecasts of local National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball games this fall, through its regional sports networks.

On the sports side, Fox plans to produce more than 200 sporting events, or more than 500 hours, of HDTV programming.

Powell issued a statement regarding Fox's plans to launch HDTV.

"I am pleased that Fox has joined the other major networks by committing to high-definition programming," he said. "I've often said that content is the engine that will drive the DTV transition forward. This announcement is the latest indication that the transition is beginning to shift to overdrive."