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Public Interest, Multicasting & 'Fee TV'

Even though DTV public interest obligations and multicast must-carry remain uncertain, broadcasters are forging ahead with multicast initiatives.

CBS intends to launch its first network multicast feed within the next year, according to Marty Franks, executive vice president of CBS Television. "CBS-dot-two," as Franks referred to it, will be a general entertainment channel that "complements the mothership."

"Think of DVD extras," he said.

For example, during the week before the premiere of "Survivor," there might be a "meet the new 'Survivor' participants" type of show. (The network already does a Friday afternoon Internet series featuring "Survivor" rejects.) Franks said to think of it as "part promo, part cutting-room floor."

He said CBS.2 would appear in at least 25 million homes already covered in sealed retransmission deals. Negotiations with affiliates to carry the multicast feed continue, he said.

When asked how CBS rectified doing a multicast with its hardcore advocacy of unmolested HD, Franks said CBS would "bit-starve the multicast during full-motion sports." During regular primetime fare--primarily forensic dramas--the network feels it can spare the 2 to 3 Mbps necessary for CBS.2 without compromising picture quality.

CBS follows NBC into the multicast arena; that network is beaming WeatherPlus to affiliates. PBS is also feeding multicasts to its member stations, and John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association for Public Television Stations said his group would be announcing more new multichannels in the coming week. Rather than rely on must-carry, the APTS cut its own carriage deal with the National Cable and Telecommunications Association earlier this year. That deal kicks in Oct. 11.

On the local level, LIN TV is using its spare bits to carry additional network feeds. Gary Chapman, chief executive of LIN TV, said his company's Indianapolis station, CBS affiliate WISH, is using part of its 6 MHz for Univision, which provides the only Spanish-language news in the market. LIN's CBS affiliate in Ft. Wayne, Ind., is multicasting UPN, he said.

LIN is also involved with USDTV, the over-the-air pay TV model launched by Steve Lindsley in Salt Lake City. Chapman said recouping the company's investment in DTV was part of the motivation.

"Every time we have an earnings release, analysts say, what about that $82 million in stranded capital," he said. "Of all the business plans, this has the most prospects to monetize our investment."

Stations lease bits to USDTV in return for per-subscriber fees, a bit fee and a share of pay-per-view revenue.

"Viewers can go pay $20 for a box and $20 a month for those basic channels," he said. "This provides an opportunity to continue the over-the-air relationship."

Chapman also noted that LIN is running a 24/7 local weather feed in Providence, R.I, but that under current public interest obligations, the station could be forced to interrupt it with three hours of children's programming. Franks said there was a "vast gulf" between what broadcasters and advocacy groups consider to be public interest programming. The FCC has yet to define public interest obligations for digital television, but some carryover of the current analog TV rules is expected.