It could be time for broadcasters, cable to get in step

Jim BartholdThroughout their history, cable, broadcasters and consumer electronics makers have engaged in a dance that generally benefited all three. For instance, during their early years, broadcasters needed a way for people to see their broadcasts so they encouraged--even built--television sets. Then they and the television set makers needed a way for people to see the television pictures and cable TV was born.

There have been times when this partnership has gone awry. Cable operators blocked channels or put them in different spots, confusing consumers and enraging local stations. TV set makers built televisions that showed premium content for free, infuriating cable operators who then had to go out and buy equipment to scramble those signals.

For the most part, though, the three-way relationship has benefited everyone.

Today it might seem as if broadcasters and cable operators are again at each other's throats with ugly fights about broadcast transmission fees, but that's all just part of a survival ploy by broadcasters who need to stay relevant and profitable in the 500-channel era. For the most part, cable needs broadcasts and broadcasters need cable and both need consumer electronics to come up with new wonders like 3D TV to foist onto consumers and subscribers.

This is why it seems wise for cable to weigh in on the side of broadcasters facing the FCC's latest spectrum grab. That grab, taking 120 MHz of prime spectrum, could push the broadcasting industry into disarray and flood their signals onto bandwidth-challenged cable systems. Perhaps cable is spending too much time worrying about the FCC's focus on its set-top vendor duopoly or the fact that CableCards haven't been much more than conversation pieces in consumer electronics circles, but there doesn't seem to be much of an aura of urgency about lining up with broadcasters on this issue.

There should be.

One broadcaster insider said the FCC's move would wreak havoc on 700 stations, including those in some of the nation's biggest markets, who would have to find new spectrum or new ways of getting their signals carried--and "in large markets there are not enough frequencies to accommodate all these stations."

The alternative is to move them into the undesirable low VHF band where "consumers won't see them because of the interference no matter what you do," the broadcaster said.

A third option is to push broadcast channels straight to cable, satellite and telco headends, except...

"The vast majority of cable headends and the overwhelming majority of satellite local receiver sites take a broadcast signal over-the-air. This is particularly true with rural cable systems or cable systems on the edges of cities," the broadcaster pointed out. "They will now be in a zone that will receive interference and unable to receive that broadcast signal and transmit it down their systems."

Too bad for the broadcasters, eh? The dinosaurs had to die out and now it's the broadcasters' time.

But seriously, is there anyone in the cable industry who thinks that the government will just let a broadcaster die on the tower? Isn't it more likely that the local cable operator will be "encouraged" to buy the equipment or run the fiber to make sure local broadcasts are received and transmitted over local cable? And while they're at it, those cable operators will also have to pay for the privilege of transmitting that channel and dedicate as much bandwidth as is needed to make sure it all happens that way.

As a three-partner dance, the doe-see-doe between cable and broadcast and consumer electronics generally flows smoothly. Throw in a fourth government partner and toes will be stomped, feelings hurt and general clumsiness will rule. -Jim