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Defiantly analog

Start-up networks are to analog capacity what a school of tuna is to a goldfish bowl, but that isn't dissuading major programmers from continuing to plunge in for scarce basic-channel slots on cable networks.

Last week, E.W. Scripps and Co. joined Oxygen, National Geographic and Discovery Health in the swim for the prime space. Scripps is launching Fine Living, a luxury living channel aimed at the conspicuous consumers of the world, as a companion to its existing HGTV and Food TV nets. Scripps executives boldly insist that they're aiming for analog carriage, despite cable operators' perennial cries that there's no room for more channels on analog tiers.

"The idea sounds great, but where am I going to put it?" said an executive with an MSO. Matt Bond, AT & T's head of programming, concurred, "AT & T fundamentally will be a digital company in the future. Analog launches are off-strategy for us."

But unwilling to settle for the fraction of capable cable subscribers who have bought digitally compressed tiers, programmers believe that they can squeeze onto analog tiers. At the end of the day, operators have always seemed to find space, particularly if networks put up cash for the carriage. The successes of The History Channel-which didn't pay for carriage-and Discovery Networks' Animal Planet-which did pay-prove it.

"We are finding in our discussions with distributors that there remains capacity for compelling channels with compelling propositions," said Lindsay Gardner, executive vice president affiliate sales and marketing for National Geographic Channel's partner FOX Cable Networks.

Susan Packard, president of Scripps Networks' new-ventures group, avoided saying outright how she does intend to get carriage for Fine Living. She did rule out trying to exploit retransmission consent for Scripps TV stations but not launch fees or equity plays.

"We'll sit down with each distributor and put together partnerships and deals that will work for them," she said.

But another cable industry veteran pointed out that it's still for sale.

"When [cable operators] get flashed money, they'll find analog space if necessary," he said. Discovery came along with $5 launch fees for Animal Planet, and it was added to analog, he said. "What they say publicly and what they do are two different things."

Certainly, many systems don't have space. Operators have spent billions expanding systems in the past few years, but there are still lots of 400- to 450-MHz cable systems out there that top out at 60 to 75 channels.

But with systems that are being rebuilt to 750 to 860 MHz of capacity, planned high-speed Internet service, telephone, interactivity and digital tiers all need a slice of that analog capacity.

"Everything above 550 MHz is dedicated to digital and telephony until we start recapturing a lot of analog," said a top-five MSO executive. "Any new capacity we create about 350 MHz, we're using for backlogged deals, like FOX News Channel."

"Do you launch Fine Living in analog, or do you launch 10 digital pay-per-view channels?" said another cable executive. "The value of the bandwidth has really increased."