Cable's actions guaranteed to attract regulatory attention

Jim BartholdThere they go again. The cable industry seems bent on attracting the attention of politicians who, in turn, have the ears of regulators, who, in turn, would like nothing better than to spend their spare hours figuring ways to get a better handle on cable.

The latest spat--and that's probably too mild a term for what's going on between Cablevision Systems and News Corp.'s Fox Networks--has done nothing to burnish the image of cable, despite Cablevision's furious and ongoing effort to throw all the blame on Fox. The timing alone guarantees attention that neither side, but more likely Cablevision, wants.

Look at the situation from the perspective of a lawmaker: It's all about sports. Sure, Walt Disney Co. turned off ABC last spring and some people lost a few precious minutes of the Academy Awards. With the exception of those elected officials who were previously members of the acting community--perhaps it should be said paid members of the acting community--no one was that concerned. This latest incident turned off the New York Yankees--America's most watched and hated baseball team--and the Philadelphia Phillies.

That's just unsportsmanlike conduct. The politicians, including a U.S. Senator, have weighed in and said so. A federal deficit building into the googolplex range? Ah, we can deal with that when we return after the elections. Unshakable unemployment? Fuggetaboutit for now. A crumbling national infrastructure? We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. But no MLB playoffs? That's reprehensible. Call in the National Guard!

Jim BartholdFor the five of you who haven't noticed, Fox and Dish Networks are in a similar tug-of-war. So far, though, Fox broadcast networks have stayed on the air. So far.

With cable's two arms--marketing and engineering--swinging in synchronicity this week in New Orleans, the stage could be set for some smart, cooperative thinking between all sides of the industry. Here's a suggestion: How about a cable set-top box with a built-in over-the-air amplified digital TV antenna? It could be given to consumers or leased at an extra charge. When the broadcasters pull their signals, as they seem wont to do, the antenna could be engaged, perhaps even via software, and the set-top would automatically seek out those channels over the air. Because it's integrated, the channels would continue to show up, but not off the cable line, over the air, as they were intended.

It's not a far fetched idea, what with everything else being built into set-tops these days. And it's certainly something that could put a nice steak on the black eye cable's getting from all these retransmission disputes.

After all, at the foundation of everything, cable is just a conduit that provides a more reliable picture for a broadcast network. It's not necessary; it's not a cable-only function; it's an extra. It's also not life-and-death, despite what those who are wailing about the Cablevision-Fox mess might think. It's an inconvenience. -- Jim

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The first FierceCable 15 will appear Wednesday. The important differentiator that makes this more than another list of cable TV technologies is that each and every one of the 15 is either deployed or in trial with a service provider. These are not whiteboard concepts; they are real products serving a real purpose in the cable industry.

It wasn't an easy list to compile. It's sometimes easier to crack the Da Vinci code than to confirm what cable operators are doing technologically to make life easier for their customers. The only ones who probably know the answer to that are the competitors who, ironically, are the ones cable claims to be guarding its secrets against.

Nevertheless, based on suggestions from readers, past experience with vendors and operators, and just some plain old research, the FierceCable 15 represents a look at 15 interesting and valuable technology trends that are leading cable into the next year. As with any annual list, this is only first. If you like--and especially if you dislike--what you see, feel free to let me know as I start to compile next year's list.