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He's playing their tune

FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who has been criticized for the deliberate pace of change at his agency, was nothing if not decisive last week. The digital-TV–tuner mandate seemed to go from legislative prompt to FCC order with an alacrity usually reserved for congressional pay raises.

The clock is now ticking on the analog giveback, but it's more like calendar pages flying off the wall in an old movie: It may take a generation. Assuming that the FCC action passes court muster, it be could several years before 85% of TV homes have at least one digital receiver. Even then, it will be tough for the government to take back the analog channels when there will still be tens of millions of analog-only sets in use.

The National Association of Broadcasters pushed hard for the integrated-tuner mandate and scored an important victory for the industry. It will give broadcasters confidence that viewers—in ever increasing numbers—will be able to receive the digital signals broadcasters are spending millions to generate.

For NAB, though, the real game begins now: must-carry and cable compatibility. Even though digital affords the opportunity of bypassing cable and reaching viewers directly over the air (see "the good old days"), most broadcasters continue to see cable as their primary conduit into the home. So NAB will demand rules that specifically require cable systems to carry whatever multichannel mix of HDTV and SDTV the broadcasters can squeeze into 6 MHz of digital spectrum. With cable operators led by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in firm opposition, things could get ugly.

Programming easy as HBO

If there were ever a week for broadcasters to sit up and take notice of the competition, it was last week. ABC certainly did.

In the clearest signal yet of cable's growing programming power, ABC, which has its own Disney and Touchstone studios to draw on, made a deal with HBO for shows. That's because ABC has been tanking in the ratings, while HBO collected the most Emmy nominations and continues to gather critical kudos for shows like The Sopranos
and Six Feet Under. But ABC didn't stop at tapping into the power of premium channels. A day later, it was signing up for basic, making a deal to re-air USA Network's Monk
in a reverse of the broadcast-to-cable repurposing of shows like Law & Order. It is only a test, but, if it works, the strategy could spread to midseason or beyond. ABC was looking for a cheap way to schedule a quality show. Cable to the rescue.

That's not to say it's time to canonize the wired medium. A casual evening of channel surfing will reveal cable's share of dreck. See The Anna Nicole Show
. Or, better yet, don't.