Broadcast scenario left unaddressed at Cable Show

Jim BartholdI love good science fiction. I'm not talking about Stargate Universe, which is admittedly good science fiction; I'm talking about 24, Fox's weekly killfest with the deadly but never dead Jack Bauer saving the world.

The best parts of the show are when Jack tells Chloe to send him the schematics of a building or a profile on a suspect or any other tons of data information that she delivers to his Sprint cell phone over her Cisco system (the show does love product placements). The information always arrives instantly as Jack looks grim and growls, "Got it!"

Truly first class science fiction.

I bring this up by way of explanation of why there was no editor's note in yesterday's newsletter. The world of fast, responsive, accurate data communications and worry-free computers is science fiction left best to shows like 24. Mere mortals who have to deal with crashing operating systems like Windows Vista are left to their own devices when they write something and it disappears into the ether, as was the case this weekend when a whole editor's note went somewhere it wasn't supposed to go, leaving not a trace of its whereabouts.

To paraphrase Tony Montana: "Say goodbye to your leeetle friend."

Anyway, in the better late than never mode, here's the thought on the recently passed cable show that was lost in thin air: everyone in Los Angeles--at least in the convention center--ignored the elephant in the room (or the elephant was so well disguised no one saw it). While talking about federal third way regulation and retransmission and IP video and the value of local broadcasting, there was a void that could suck the air out of everyone's services as early as the end of this year.

If local broadcasts are so valuable they deserve money from cable operators, what's to keep the broadcasters delivering signals over the air--especially as that chore has become increasingly difficult with the digital transition? Why not just follow the lazy man's route and deliver the signal over the air or, better yet, via direct fiber to the nearest cable, telco or satellite receive site? That way the signal can go out over the service provider's network and the broadcaster can be paid for the content.

The problem is no matter how you shake it, broadcast television is not cable television. It was born free and is considered to be free--admittedly by fewer and fewer consumers but most importantly by the federal government, which has given broadcasters the spectrum on which to operate. If broadcasters don't make a best-effort try to get the content over the air to a new breed of admittedly difficult digital receivers, the FCC is ready to take away the spectrum.

The FCC has already said it wants 120 MHz of broadcast spectrum for wireless use on its national broadband plan. Broadcasters--and cable operators--are doing themselves no favors by making it more attractive for over-the-air programs to be carried near-exclusively on cable networks. In fact, they could probably both be doing themselves a real disservice because if the FCC indeed grabs that 120 MHz of spectrum it's likely the broadcasters will be scrambling for some way to get their signals to end users. And that means they'll be looking to the FCC to modify must-carry rules to make sure the signals get there. And the FCC, unlikely to buck a group as powerful as broadcasters, is likely to accede to the demand.

So while cable executives, vendors and technologists last week looked ahead to IP video, watched cautiously as the FCC suggested broadband Internet regulation, and worried that retransmission fees might make for higher subscriber fees, no one, including the FCC, seemed all that concerned about the elephant in the convention center.

Related articles:
The Cable Show 2010 news summary
FCC chairman describes narrowly tailored 'third way' for broadband providers
IP video is already here, say cable CTOs
FCC taking hands off of broadcast retransmission battles
Retransmission review at hand, FCC chief says
FCC plan calls for 500 MHz of new spectrum for wireless
Local TV becoming a hot property again: just ask Comcast