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Divide and Conquer, DTV Style

We owe an apology of sorts to ABC's Preston Padden and Sinclair's David Smith. Washington dumped on them in the summer of 1997 after they suggested that their station groups might use their DTV channels to multicast several channels of standard-definition television rather than a single HDTV service. This page did some of the shoveling: "What this industry needs is a consensus to make HDTV work, not a consensus to avoid it."

Their pronouncement may not have been politically wise. Congress and the FCC had just awarded the DTV spectrum to broadcasters based on the argument that, if they didn't get the spectrum, America would lose out on HDTV and be annexed by Japan. Critics were still carping about a $70 billion spectrum giveaway.

Padden and Smith had the right idea, though. And it wasn't multicasting. It was that broadcasters should keep their minds open on DTV, that this opportunity was too important to lock in to HDTV and ignore other possibilities. Don't allow the lawmakers and bureaucrats to dictate your business. Invent it yourself.

Multicasting a mix of HD and SD may be the right way to go, but the business model is still far from clear. What is the right mix? Is it ad-supported or subscription-supported? Should broadcasters rely on cable carriage (and must-carry rules) or try to outfit the 230 million analog TV sets with set-tops so they can receive DTV signals off the air? Should the multicasting services be primarily local or national?

All great questions. All are now being discussed. But, with a bow to Padden and Smith and bite or two of crow, the discussion should have begun six years ago.

Divide and Conquer II

Pushed by Hardball
hurler Chris Matthews on the media-ownership issue last week, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean didn't beat around the Bush but went straight for the administration and the industry. "We're going to break up giant media enterprises," he said, opining that a handful of companies control 90% of what "ordinary" people watch. "That's wrong," he said, and undemocratic, and laid the blame on "what George Bush has tried to do to the FCC."

At least he didn't wax nostalgic about the good old days, when, as we recall, there were only three networks and far fewer companies supplying what that 90% watched. We aren't particularly surprised by Dean's attacks. He is the favorite of Internet activists who helped engineer the "groundswell" of anti-consolidation sentiment over the past year.

Dean may simply be beating a handy populist drum on the campaign bandwagon, but because he is the clear front-runner in New Hampshire, broadcasters need to listen, and to keep their guard up.