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Ferree TV Worth a Look, Says Sachs

Top cable lobbyist Robert Sachs isn't ready to handicap the Federal Communications Commission's new plan to speed the digital-TV transition, but he thinks it is worth considering.

He also wasn't shy about criticizing rivals at the National Association of Broadcasters who have attacked ideas being shopped around by agency Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree. "Rather than being ridiculed as they have by some trade associations, they ought to be commended for thinking outside the box and coming up with ideas that ought to be considered."

Sachs, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, was responding to reporters' questions following his briefing about the May NCTA convention. "There's been a lot of talk but not a lot of thought about how this transition might be accomplished," he said.

Ferree, under orders from FCC Chairman Michael Powell, has floated a plan that would speed the transition to digital TV and require broadcasters to return their analog channels to the government by 2009. Under the plan, almost all cable subscribers would count immediately toward the 85% penetration test for reclaiming old analog spectrum because the FCC would count even subscribers who don't own DTV equipment but receive digital channels that cable systems have re-converted to analog.

Broadcasters hate the idea because they would have to return analog channels before cable viewers, the overwhelming majority of TV viewers, get a true digital picture. Rather than carrying broadcasters in analog for years to come, Ferree predicts cable systems will quickly provide customers with digital set-top boxes capable of delivering those pictures because going all-digital takes less channel capacity. Sachs said "there is merit" to Ferree's prediction, but was not ready to commit cable systems to the expense of giving customers digital converter boxes.