Digital, courtesy of the letters TWC

Public broadcasting stations have completed a carriage deal with Time Warner Cable, with 132 PBS member stations signing on.

Most of the deal's details will remain private, but Time Warner Cable spokesman Mike Luftman says the nation's second-largest cable operator plans to carry all PBS' digital programming as soon as stations offer a digital signal.

"We have long been a believer in HDTV," Luftman says. "It's a technology that is a very powerful viewing experience. We think people will ultimately gravitate to it once prices come down."

Time Warner's 750-MHz systems carry analog signals on the lower 80 channels and digital signals on the upper 120, Luftman said. PBS stations that offer both analog and digital signals will be carried on both tiers for as long as both signals are offered. Luftman says system capacity is not an issue for Time Warner with regard to carrying digital signals during the transition.

"We do have enough capacity for the digital feeds of all the popular local broadcast signals," he says. "We are anxious to be able to carry them."

What Time Warner doesn't want to have to carry are all the "lightly viewed" stations, such as local religious broadcasters and home shopping channels.

Time Warner Cable has proved its interest in broadcasters' digital offerings by leading the industry in signing digital carriage deals. So far, besides PBS, it has agreements in place with ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and Belo Corp. Time Warner still must work out arrangements with the other major broadcast groups, such as Tribune, Luftman says.

PBS says the deal will help it move forward with digital transition, which by law must be completed by May 1, 2003.

"This is a groundbreaking collaboration between public television and Time Warner Cable," says Sidney Topol, a member of the PBS board of directors. "The agreement assures that millions of Americans will have access to expanded programming and education services on their local public TV stations' digital signal."

With Time Warner trying to complete its merger with AOL, critics are watching very closely any deals the company closes.

PBS has been in the forefront of developing high-definition programming, multiplexed channel offerings and enhanced television, which can deliver CD-ROM-like data to television sets through special set-top boxes. But PBS' agreement with Time Warner does not include enhanced or interactive television, says Ed Caleca, PBS' senior vice president of technology and operations.

Sources believe that the deal structure demonstrates how the new AOL Time Warner would try to force programmers to agree to allow content to be kept within a so-called "walled garden" that would be accessible only over Time Warner Cable systems and would not link with the rest of the Internet.

But Caleca is more sanguine. "We're working with them separately on interactive TV. There's no specific reference to interactive TV per se. But whatever we put on the 6 MHz of spectrum, they will take." He says PBS will soon finish deals with two other cable companies.

PBS is negotiating with Time Warner to have its interactive- and enhanced-TV products included in trials and later on cable systems. "We continue to work with Time Warner and others on understanding what it is that we need to get accomplished in interactive TV in current and future generations of set-top boxes," Caleca says.

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.