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Let the Chips Fall

There's a Ruth Brown blues classic titled "If I can't sell it, I'll sit on it." It might get them in trouble with the innuendo police over at the FCC, but it should be the new anthem of the United Stations of Emmis. They are united in their opposition to any cable-system offer but cash for their digital signals. Dial position? Peanuts. Marketing help? We'll push our own shopping cart, thank you. Even offers of ad buys fall on determinedly deaf ears.

Emmis Chairman Jeff Smulyan has long argued that broadcasters gave away the store in the initial round of analog retrans negotiations. He has vowed not to make the same mistake with digital. Cox isn't giving it away, says Emmis, so, this time, neither are we. And Emmis is not alone. Sinclair is another group that has preached the value of the broadcast signal and refused to give away its digital offerings.

Circumstances have conspired to make Omaha, Neb., the first big battleground. That's because a previous owner of KMTV(TV) there had made a deal back in 2000 (way back in tech time) to give Cox its HDTV programming. Today, that means CBS's extensive lineup of big-ticket HDTV draws: Super Bowl, March Madness, The Masters, not to mention those CSI cut-ups in widescreen, super-sharp detail. Tomorrow, who knows. Emmis says it has spent millions to pass-through the CBS signal, millions more to start rolling its own. Either way, Emmis sees that programming as a valuable asset and a potential ticket to a second revenue stream.

After 12 months of extended negotiations and extensions of the contract, Emmis took back its digital signal in Omaha and will sit on it until it gets paid. It is taking the same hard-line stand in its 15 other markets. We have it on good authority that this is a nonnegotiable position.

It makes it easier that the affected HDTV population there is about 2,500 subs and that, in the public-relations war, it is hard to characterize Emmis as taking its marbles and going home since it still supplies its digital signal over the air and its analog signal over the air and on cable.

Emmis's analog retrans deal is up also, and it would like some cash for that, too, but the balance of power there still requires it to keep its signal where it is and take no hard-line stands. Eventually, however, the digital signal will be the only hand broadcasters get to play. They need to figure out what it is worth and what it can be worth sliced and diced into the kind of services being pitched to the FCC. Armed with that, they need to act as though they've got decent cards rather than fold before the first raise.

"Now, if you want this, put your hand in your stash and give me some cash," sang Ruth Brown in a way that immediately conveyed the value of her signals. "Now, if you want something for free, go to the Salvation Army, don't come runnin' to me."

Ruth and Jeff have got it just about right.