Local Broadcasters Talk Up Digital Feeds

As federal regulators mull the issue of digital must-carry, MSOs and, in some cases, broadcasters are negotiating in an attempt to amicably arrange cable carriage of multicasts from TV stations.

In the Tri Cities, Tenn., market, NBC affiliate WCYB-TV is talking with cable operators about carrying four digital feeds that it started multicasting May 26.

The major cable systems involved, according to WCYB general manager Joe Macione Jr., include Charter Communications Inc., reaching 100,000 subscribers in the No. 92 DMA, as well as well as Comcast Corp. and Adelphia Communications Corp.

Some small independent cable operators in the market are already carrying the multicasts, he added.

In Chicago, Paxson Communications Corp. is in talks with cable systems in that DMA about gaining carriage for its multicast feeds of WCPX-TV.

Paxson officials claimed their company is the first broadcast-station group to digitally multicast six network signals.

Bristol, Va.-based WCYB is producing four digital feeds-one for its own station, one for The WB Television Network, one for Pax TV and a fourth that will soon carry local-news inserts for MSNBC.

The WB and Pax TV don't have TV-station affiliates in the Tri Cities DMA, which includes Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City, Tenn.

WCYB is asking cable operators to carry its four feeds by using special equipment to convert those digital signals to analog at their headends and then deliver them to their cable subscribers.

That delivery method would be a boon for WCYB in that those subscribers would be able to see the broadcaster's multicasts without the need for digital-TV sets or special tuners.

The TV station and Charter already have a relationship in the Tri Cities market, according to both Macione and Craig Perica, group director for Charter's mid-South region, which stems back to a deal they made in the fall regarding The WB.

Last October, superstation WGN stopped carrying The WB's programming. That would have left the Tri Cities market without popular WB fare such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson's Creek because the network doesn't have an affiliate in the small DMA.

"We were getting a lot of calls from people who were concerned," Perica said.

So WCYB offered to provide Charter with a feed that would include WB programming, with the rest of the schedule filled out with some syndicated shows the TV station airs, along with local programming such as rebroadcast WCYB newscasts.

Since the fall, Charter has been supplying that WB feed to its subscribers via a fiber-optic line, according to Perica.

At this point, Perica said, Charter isn't carrying the rest of WCYB's digital channels, but he expects to talk with the station about them.

Charter already carries Pax TV as a satellite-delivered cable service, but if WCYB opts to act as the seventh broadcast network's TV-station affiliate in Tri Cities, the cable system may be required to carry it, according to Perica.

If WCYB adds some local programming elements, such as news cut-ins, to its digital feed of Pax TV the way it does with The WB, that would make the multicast attractive to Charter, giving it localized programming to compete with direct-broadcast satellite, Perica said.

"We'll enter into discussions with [WCYB] on the additional feeds," he added.

But according to Macione, WCYB has already signed deals with Charter and Adelphia for its digital multicasts, and has reached an oral agreement with Comcast.

Officials at Comcast and Charter couldn't be reached for comment last week.

In Chicago, WCPX has started to multicast six network feeds, and the broadcaster is talking with cable operators and "open-video-system operators" about carrying them all. The feeds include the Pax TV central-time-zone feed on the primary digital channel, WCPX-DT, channel 46; the Pax TV Eastern and Pacific feeds; The Worship Network; PraiseTV; and Total Living Network.

Paxson, citing the 1992 Cable Act, is asking cable operators in the Windy City, including AT & T Broadband, to substitute the broadcaster's primary digital channel, WCPX-DT, for its analog signal for WCPX-TV. Then, Paxson is requesting that operators carry the remainder of WCPX-DT's digital signal on the digital parts of their program lineups in homes with digital set-tops.

Through the use of cable-channel-mapping protocol, or "PSIP," these additional multi-casts would be programmed into set-tops so that they would appear in sequence after WCPX-DT.

Paxson chairman Lowell "Bud" Paxson has presented this must-carry game plan to the Federal Communications Commission, the National Association of Broadcasters and members of the cable industry.

In a prepared statement regarding WCPX-DT, Paxson said, "It is the company's goal to achieve must-carry under the current 1992 must-carry law using the processes available to us and, if needed, to seek compromises to effectuate a digital must-carry plan, which I feel is an absolute requirement for the successful transition on a nationwide basis from analog television to digital television."

Last week, Pax TV president of cable distribution Steve Friedman was tight-lipped about the status of negotiations for carriage of its four digital multicasts in Chicago, saying only that talks with operators there were ongoing.