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NAB, CES, NCTA square off over downconversion

Three of the broadcast, cable and consumer electronic industry giants tussled over cable TV industry plans to downconvert HD signals, a move the cable industry says is necessary in certain instances to deliver all broadcast DTV signals in an era of bandwidth constraints while broadcasters and CE worry that less HD will turn off viewers.

The topic was part of an afternoon panel at the MSTV Conference on Tuesday that drew 300 top executives from the government and broadcast industry. The panelists were NAB President and CEO David Rehr, Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) President and CEO Gary Shapiro, and Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA).

Rehr expressed concern over differences between industry segments that could derail the DTV transition. “We have to ensure that no set goes dark in the next 865 days,” he said.

McSlarrow said that NAB concerns over downconverting HD broadcast signals to SD to save bandwidth are overblown. “There’s a small subset of broadcast channels that can force their way on guarantee placement on the broadcast tier which all cable subscribers have to buy before they can buy other cable programming and that’s a huge advantage for those channels,” he said. “And in some markets, because of capacity issues, the digital channel will be in standard definition for a limited period of time. But that’s not a bad tradeoff to carry a channel in both analog and digital form.”

He added that any broadcast channel that has a retransmission agreement for HD carriage will continue to be carried in HD.

Rehr countered that NAB is concerned about a lack of objectivity in deciding which HD channels are ultimately delivered to viewers. “We think cable’s reluctance to add HD channels will change over time,” he said. “And once viewers figure out that a channel is available in HD but the cable operator is preventing them from getting it the anti-discrimination aspect will be solved [to keep subscribers].”

Shapiro is bothered by any prospect of HD signals not being delivered to viewers. “History and the pocketbook is showing that the choice for consumers is overwhelmingly HD,” he said. “And when we hear about downconversion we shudder.”

Cable, he added, is in a similar situation to a common carrier where they can’t choose to keep a passenger off of a plane or bus. “If it isn’t okay to strip out captioning or color how can cable deny consumers HD pictures? If HD carriage is unconstitutional the NCTA should challenge it in court and they’ll win. But right now the obligation is a full HD signal with Dolby Surround Sound.”