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HDTV Summit Gets the Big Room
4/2/2004

The usual suspects and then some gathered at the 9th Annual HDTV Summit to pitch their perspectives of the DTV transition -- each from their own particular aspect ratio. Having grown too large for the confines of the meeting room in the Renaissance Hotel where the summit was held last year, attendees filled a large conference room this year at the new Washington, D.C. Convention Center. All the better to witness the action between the likes of the intrepid NAB chief, Eddie Fritts and the ever-urbane Robert Sachs, head of the cable lobby.

The topic between the two, like last year, was must-carry. Fritts opened with a volley about the plight of broadcasters, whom he said are supporting two towers, two transmitters and two electric bills.

"We've looked at lots of ways to expedite this transaction, I mean transition," he said. "Must-carry is the last impediment."

Sachs countered with his usual litany of what cable has done for broadcast lately, including the one about cable investing $85 billion to upgrade systems to add digital capacity. Sachs pointed out that cable operators now collectively carry 382 local digital broadcast stations on those expensively upgraded systems. (Although according to a report from TheStreet.com, the upgrade figure actually consists of all capital expenditures, including things like desk chairs and truck tires.)

Fritts shot back that there were 1,175 DTV stations on the air, so the 382 on cable is hardly a good reason to back off on must-carry. Last year, the numbers were 800 on the air, with 75 on cable, so percentage-wise, cable carriage has increased from 9 percent of stations on the air to 33 percent.

Fritts even told Sachs that must-carry would be good for cable operators, because broadcasters would subsequently abandon the bandwidth where their analog channels now reside.

Last year, Sachs said it was only when stations sought compensation for HD content that cable operators refused to carry their digital signals. This year, it was the compelling-content argument.

"Cable operators are carrying multicast signals where broadcasters are offering something of value, not when a station in Fresno sticks a camera out the window and calls it a weather channel," he said. "Cable is not the impediment to the digital transition."

Fritts then said it would be impossible to reach the 85-percent analog shut-off threshold if broadcasters couldn't reach the 70 percent of homes that get cable.
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