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NBC Warns of Post-DTV Glitch

NBC Universal is making moves to ensure that its programming still reaches standard-definition cable and satellite viewers in the proper format after analog broadcasts cease in 2009.

At that point, cable and satellite operators will start carrying a downconverted version of the network's HDTV signal to support viewers with analog sets.

At the NAB show, NBCU explained it is teaming with Hearst-Argyle and Tribune Co. to promote the use of Active Format Descriptor (AFD) technology, which will ensure that cable-headend equipment and set-top boxes display the downconverted signal in the aspect ratio that producers originally intended. The trio of broadcasters formed the "AFD Ready" initiative to promote its use.

Without the use of AFD information, viewers could see postage-stamp-sized pictures on their 4:3 sets or suffer from graphics designed for wide-screen pictures being cut off during 4:3 display.

On a practical basis, the effort may have more benefit to NBC's affiliates than its owned stations. Like ABC, NBC plans to use fiber-optic links to continue to deliver its own downconverted, 4:3 standard-definition version of the HDTV feed from its owned stations to cable operators in their markets after the Feb. 17, 2009, analog turnoff for high-powered broadcast stations.

But affiliates may broadcast a single HDTV signal, which cable and satellite operators will have to downconvert, either through headend equipment or HD set-top boxes, to enable analog TV sets to display the picture.

That is where the AFD technology becomes important, particularly for protecting graphics, logos and bugs. John Eck, president of the NBC TV Network and Media Works, gave the example of a recent HD commercial for Nike that, when shown on a 4:3 set, displayed the truncated tagline, "ust do it."