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Fast Track

DTV Date: April 7, 2009

By John Eggerton

Hill could weigh in on multicast

If the Senate Commerce Committee has its way, April 7, 2009, will be the date when broadcasters have to pull the plug on analog transmissions. That's the message from a draft of a DTV “hard date” bill circulated among staffers Friday.

As expected, the bare-bones bill does not deal with mandatory cable carriage of broadcasters' multicast DTV signals, with any new public-interest obligations, or with cable conversion of the DTV signal, which will be addressed in a separate bill.

The hard-date bill would require that money collected from auctions of the reclaimed analog spectrum (it expects to pull in $4.8 billion) go into a new Digital Transition and Public Safety Fund to: 1) help pay for digital-to- analog converter boxes; 2) convert low-power TV stations and TV translators (an important issue with Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska); 3) help pay for new emergency communications systems (some of the spectrum will be handed over to first responders); 4) help pay for an enhanced 911 system; 5) provide money for hurricane assistance in coastal states.

The last provision was a way of addressing the pressure to use the auction proceeds to help pay for the hundreds of billions promised for Katrina relief.

Mandatory cable carriage of broadcasters' multicast DTV signals could yet get its day on the Hill if the committee adds a fifth media-related bill to its busy hearing on Oct. 19. Already on the docket are the DTV-transition bill, a VoIP/911 bill, one establishing a pan-media emergency-communications system, and another mandating on-screen disclaimers for government-issued, packaged video news releases.

What seems conspicuous in its absence is a companion bill to bare- bones DTV transition legislation. A Senate commerce staffer said that was still being worked on and could yet be added to the mark-up agenda, though a source Friday said there could be a procedural snag.

Even if multicasting does make it through the committee, it will have to be reconciled with a House bill.

Google/Comcast and AOL: A Tangled Web

By John M. Higgins

By asking Comcast to join in negotiations to obtain a big piece of AOL, Google appears to be bolstering its ambitions to become a major TV player as television moves to the Internet.

The two companies are talking only about obtaining a minority stake in AOL's Web portal. Google and Comcast are not interested in AOL's subscription Internet access business, which is shrinking in the face of cheap broadband access.

With a stock valuation of $80 billion, no debt and a huge Web presence, Google hardly needs the cable giant's help. But both companies are trying to figure out how video will play out on the Web. Google is attempting to establish a video site, both for searching video and distributing programming. Besides being the country's largest cable operator, Comcast is also the largest licensor of programming, and has 8 million high-speed Internet subscribers. But it hasn't figured out how to establish a Web video business either.

Time Warner and Comcast would not comment on their talks. A Google spokesman says that “Google and AOL have a healthy global partnership, and AOL remains a valued partner.”

Rookies Get Thumbs-Up

CBS has given full- season pickups to freshmen comedy How I Met Your Mother and dramas Ghost Whisperer and Criminal Minds. Mother has fit well into the Monday comedy lineup between King of Queens and Two and a Half Men.

Ghost Whisperer has been a surprise on Fridays, while Criminal Minds also has found an audience despite going up against ABC's Lost.

CBS also added three scripts apiece of Out of Practice and Threshold.

Meanwhile, Twentieth TV announced 10 additional clearances for new syndicated strip Geraldo at Large, which launches Oct. 31 in the Fox O&O slots currently airing A Current Affair. The half-hour program featuring Geraldo Rivera has been cleared in 55% of the country, according to Twentieth.—Ben Grossman

CPB CEO Ferree Resigns

Corporation for Public Broadcasting Executive VP/CEO Ken Ferree resigned last week to join California law firm Sheppard & Mullin, which is expanding its Washington telecommunications presence.

CPB is hiring an executive-search firm to find a replacement. In the interim, Fred DeMarco, executive VP/senior adviser to President Patricia Harrison, will assume Ferree's duties.

Ferree, the former FCC Media Bureau chief under Michael Powell, had joined CPB in March, when Powell also exited the commission, and was named acting president when Kathleen Cox left abruptly last April. Ferree had thrown his hat in the ring for that job but was moved to COO when the CPB tapped Harrison, the choice of Chairman Ken Tomlinson.—J.E.

Mobile Video On the Move

Mobile video took a step forward when Apple and EchoStar rolled out initiatives last week that let consumers download video to portable players. But Disney's decision to make episodes of Lost and Desperate Housewives available for download through Apple's iTunes was the surprise of the week, as it marks the first time high-value content has been available for downloading to own (see Robins Report on page 5).

“Everyone with an established position in the value chain of distribution has to look at the opportunity for video delivery over broadband,” says Nitin Gubda, Forrester Research analyst, consumer electronics devices. “If companies like Apple, Disney and ABC don't establish an alternate content delivery method, someone else will.”

Offering Lost and Housewives is a great experiment, says Gubda, though he warns against overstating the move's impact on TV consumption: “It's a little premature for anyone [like a local TV station] to have concerns of losing eyeballs and revenues to these devices.”

The portable-video forays are being watched intently by other major content providers. “We already make CNN content available for podcasting,” says Susan Grant, executive VP, CNN News Services, “and we have a great opportunity to now think about video.”

—Ken Kerschbaumer/Joel Meyer

Report Finds Race, Gender Gap Among Writers

Television writers are still predominantly Caucasian males, according to a new report released by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) West.

According to the report, only 27% of television employment in 2004 was female, while all minorities combined made up just 10% of TV writers. The report notes that women represent more than 50% of the U.S. population and minorities make up 30%.

The gap between the median television earnings of white males and all females was nearly $12,000. The groups were almost even in 1998, the last time the organization conducted a similar study. The difference between white males and all minorities was nearly $18,000 in 2004 (it was about $8,500 in 1998).—B.G.

Net VOD Service Nets Hallmark, Outdoor Content

Programming networks Hallmark Channel and Outdoor Channel have struck content deals with Internet-delivered video-on-demand (VOD) program service Akimbo.

Hallmark has made its extensive library available to the service, for which Outdoor will provide a selection of hunting, fishing and other outdoor lifestyle shows, including Angler on Tour, Circle of Honor and 4x4 TV.

The deal will add more than 3,000 hours of programming to Akimbo's $9.99-per-month service of 75 channels.—J.E.

HBO Tinkers With 'Deadwood'

Mark Tinker has joined HBO's Deadwood as an executive producer. The Emmy winner will also direct several episodes of the Western drama. The TV veteran has been nominated for 16 Emmys, winning four: one for producing NYPD Blue and three for directing (St. Elsewhere, NYPD Blue and Brooklyn South). Deadwood's 12-episode third season is currently in production and will run next year.—J.M.

Mediacom's Mandel On the Fall...and Beyond

As chief negotiating officer for ad-buying giant Mediacom, Jon Mandel oversees nearly $3 billion in spending on TV commercials each year. He spoke with B&C's John M. Higgins for this week's Take Five Q&A.

The TV ad business is pretty slow. What do you think will happen as the season progresses?

The problem with the ad market is, in both local and national TV, everybody has spent so much time shitting on each other. Meanwhile, the online guys have been talking about how great they are. I don't see the TV ad market going through any major changes, maybe for the rest of my career, unless the television industry gets its shit together and stops going after each other and realizes that they have to sell television.

Isn't that the classic sign of a mature business, that there's no growth and you have to take it from somebody else?

Except they're taking from themselves. Why don't they try to take it from somebody else? Television has an exceedingly strong story to tell, and they've sort of lost it. The story is, there isn't really a medium that moves product as well and it's just as accountable as any other medium. In the worst case, they still have 40 times as many people involved with them as online does. Instead, the buzz is about how much online is accountable and TV doesn't work.

When you talk about the TV industry, you say “we.” Why? You're in the ad industry.

If network television is screwed, the guys that are screwed the most are the advertisers. I'll take some of the blame. It's my peers' fault and my clients' fault too. If you ain't part of the solution, you're part of the problem. We're part of the problem, too. You put something on that's a little bit out there, and advertisers won't go to it; they'll run away from it. Except at Mediacom, where we're proud of the fact that we'll find some clients to run in anything, to support something that's a little bit different.

What's surprising you in the new TV season?

ABC caught some lightning in a bottle last year. Since one dot makes a trend in our business, people expected a trend this year. Everybody was jumping up and down about UPN's Everybody Hates Chris. We said, “Have any of you people watched the pilot?” It's good, but it's not lightning in a bottle.

What new shows don't you like?

An awful lot of the stuff that [NBC Universal TV Group head] Jeff Zucker put on the schedule. They have some stuff that God only knows how Jeff picked it. And note that I keep saying Jeff. In a certain sense, I can't wait to see when Kevin [Reilly, NBC Entertainment president] is actually allowed to do a schedule. As an industry, we all have to do stuff to freshen it. That's a lesson we learned from ABC last year. You can't have 92 Law & Orders and 17 CSIs.

GMA's Perkins Exits

Good Morning America weatherman Tony Perkins will leave the ABC morning show Dec. 2 to return to his former TV station, WTTG Washington, putting an end to months of speculation regarding his fate.

Perkins will stay with GMA through the key November sweeps ratings period and plans to start at WTTG Jan. 2.

Before joining GMA in 1999, Perkins was a weatherman on WTTG's Fox Morning News from 1993 to 1998, then spent a year co-anchoring the show. Under his new deal, Perkins will be the weekday weatherman and will also contribute other features to the newscast.

ABC has not announced Perkins' successor. WABC New York meteorologist Sam Champion has been floated as a possible candidate, as has GMA weekend weathercaster Marysol Castro.—Allison Romano