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Jan 27, 9:29 PM (ET)


By JONATHAN D. SALANT (AP)


WASHINGTON (AP) - To most couch potatoes, digital television means a sharper picture. Broadcasters see another advantage, though: They could offer up to six times as many channels.

Broadcast networks say they'll offer more channels if the government requires cable companies to carry them. More channels would mean more choices, stiffer competition and better programming, they say.

But cable companies, which have room for only a limited number of channels, say a federal mandate could force them to drop cable services to make room for extra broadcast channels. Those channels might carry nothing but infomercials or home shopping shows, they say.

The cable industry, which serves more than two-thirds of the 108.4 million U.S. households with television, insists that it, not the government, should decide which channels find homes on their systems.

The issue is before the Federal Communications Commission, which is expected to decide by spring whether cable companies must carry the extra broadcast channels.

The fight is due to the transition to digital broadcasting, which will be standard in most areas by 2006. A digital signal can carry more information than the current analog transmissions without using any more space on the broadcast spectrum.

While some stations may use their digital signals for larger and sharper high-definition broadcasts, others may use the spectrum to air to up to six channels.

Broadcasters said the newer networks - Fox, the WB, UPN and Pax - became viable only because cable companies were forced to carry the UHF channels with that programming. Requiring cable to carry the digital broadcast channels will offer even more alternatives, they said.

"Cable is definitely afraid of competition from free local broadcast channels," said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. "Consumers ought to be afforded the choice."

The cable TV industry said those extra broadcast channels may eventually wind up on cable systems, but the First Amendment gives operators, not the government, the power to make that decision.

"Generally speaking, cable wants to carry compelling programming," said Dan Brenner, senior vice president for law at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. "If broadcasters have compelling programming, we'll carry it."

Consumer advocates worry the extra channels would give the largest broadcasting companies even more control over what people see and hear. Instead of four network-controlled channels in a market, viewers could see up to 24 if each of the four major networks - ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox - opts for the maximum six channels.

"Until steps are taken to reduce broadcasters' dominance over the most important sources of local news and information, they should not be given the benefit of more channels that cable operators are forced to carry," said Chris Murray, legislative counsel for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

The FCC ruled in 2001 that cable companies only have to carry a single network digital channel. Of the current five commissioners, Chairman Michael Powell was the only one on the panel then. Powell supported the original ruling but has said he will consider new arguments.

The head of the FCC's media bureau, W. Kenneth Ferree, said the complexity of this issue "makes it very difficult to predict how any of this may come out."

In urging the FCC to reverse course, broadcasters cited the benefits of the extra programming they planned to produce if they are guaranteed space on cable systems.

ABC, for example, touted its Fresno, Calif., station that offers separate local news and weather channels. NBC's affiliates said they might carry channels devoted to city council meetings, high school sports and local traffic and weather, or use the extra channels to bring the WB, UPN and Spanish-language networks to communities. DIC Entertainment, producer of such cartoons as "Madeline" and "Inspector Gadget," said it would create a children's network using the extra digital channels.

On the other side, networks that can be seen only on cable or satellite systems and not on over-the-air television worry that their programs will be sacrificed to make room for the extra broadcast channels. Discovery Communications, for example, says its Discovery Kids network could be dropped from cable systems if they are forced to carry DIC's children's channel.

In the months leading up to the expected decision, lobbyists for the broadcasting and cable industries have submitted thousands of pages of documents and met with commissioners and their staffs.

Those supporting the broadcasters include the lawyer-lobbying firm of Shaw Pittman, whose members include former Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla. Cable industry advocates include Laurence Tribe, who represented Al Gore before the Supreme Court in the 2000 Florida recount case.
 

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Are the broadcasters stupid or what? They are losing market share to cable at a furious clip, and their response is to...


ADD MORE CHANNELS?!?


How about USE THIER BANDWIDTH TO BROADCAST FULL, UNCOMPRESSED HDTV?


The ONLY thing broadcasters have going for them is that their HDTV is superior to HD cable, because they can offer a signal with less compression.


If I want the friggin weather I'll go to weather.com!


Let's see, I could watch CSI in full HDTV, or my local school board meeting? Yeah, I think I'll watch that school baord meeting!


DUH!
 

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Quote:
Originally posted by eric.krieg
How about USE THIER BANDWIDTH TO BROADCAST FULL, UNCOMPRESSED HDTV?


The ONLY thing broadcasters have going for them is that their HDTV is superior to HD cable, because they can offer a signal with less compression.
There is not enough bandwidth in the US broadcast channel for full, uncompressed HDTV. 1920x1080x24bit-color is around 49Mbps of data. The network feeds are sent via satellite at 45Mbps. The broadcast standard only permits 19.2Mbps of real data. All HDTV is compressed.


Even so, I understand what you mean. If they chop that 19.2Mbps into more than one video feed, it becomes obvious that the signal is overcompressed, normally. Here in Minnesota, KSTC is showing HDNet and multiplexing in their analog programming in the "blank spaces." HDNet is sent as a constant rate signal, but when re-encoded as variable rate to eliminate "fill" or "non-data" there is enough space to sqeeze in a 480i program.


Cable has the benefit of being able to strip a lot of FEC from their HD signal. Since their transmission system is (supposedly) more robust, the error rates are much lower, it is possible to reduce the overhead from FEC significantly without any change in picture quality.


That said, I have no real problems with a station that chooses to multicast during non-HD events. I don't think we're going to see HD infomercials or HD religious programming for a long time. These things just aren't visually demanding. So what if they want to include a weather shot, or a live shot of downtown, or a shopping channel? Those things don't bother me a bit.


I think it's funny that this thread is going on when almost every cable company in the country is NOT OFFERING all of their local channels in HD. They're not even carrying the primary signal digitally. Granted, this may be because the local broadcasters want assurance that their secondary programming will be included, but that falls on deaf ears here. If the cable company has room for HD during prime time, they have room for the multicast programming the rest of the day.


What broadcast has going for it is what it has always had going for it: you pay the same whether you watch it or not. (You pay whenever you purchase a product advertised on television. Thus, whether you've ever seen a Toyota commercial or not, when you buy a Camry, you're paying for the advertising that supports the broadcast television industry.) So watching it doesn't cost you anything. For all intents and purposes, it is free. And since it's free, I can spend less money by buying a DirecTV system and paying for the channels that aren't free (ESPN, Fox Sports Net, etc.) and not paying twice for the broadcast ones.
 

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Is that what you got out of that article? That they WOULDN'T be multicasting during CSI and other "true" HDTV programs? I didn't interpret it that way.


I have no problem with multicasting when things like infomercials or the local news are on. But when CSI or NYPD Blue is on, the networks would be foolish to multicast. Full, true HD is their trump card.


It also seems to me that, after the transition to digital, the spectrum could be rejiggered to give each station more bandwidth, and allow full (fuller?) HDTV, with no or minimal compression.


It's like MP3's, right? 128 kbps MP3's sound like crap. But (supposedly) at 300 kbps, you can't tell the difference between an MP3 and a CD. There is a level of compression that doesn't impact performance.
 
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