NBC Tuesday became the first of the Big Three networks to declare that it will opt next month for retransmission consent, a move that will require cable operators to pay for the signals of its six owned-and-operated stations with cash, promotion or some other valuable commodity.

The web’s decision to choose retrans for its O&Os over must-carry protection, which would ensure that its stations retain their premium channel positions, is important because many broadcasters have been waiting to see how the major station groups weigh in on the issue.

Although NBC had been leaning toward retrans, many industry observers had expected the CBS Television Stations to take the lead. The Eye Web, after all, has been the most vocal Big Three supporter of demanding payments from cablers.

The betting money is on ABC to opt for retrans too by the June 17 deadline, since it is unlikely that a cable system would drop or downgrade a strong VHF web O&O.

But the cablers have warned that they are willing to play hardball on the retrans issue.

In explaining why the web chose the retrans path, NBC Network TV prez Pier Mapes said at a post-confab press conference, “Our broadcast signal has a tremendous amount of value to us.”

But Mapes and NBC affiliate board chairman Jim Waterbury, general manager of KWWL in Waterloo, Iowa, emphasized that NBC’s decision to opt for retrans only applies to the network’s O&Os.

The remainder of the network’s 209 affiliated TV stations will decide the issue individually. Federal antitrust laws prohibit them from devising a uniform policy.

Despite its commitment to retrans, NBC has yet to develop a strategy for dealing with cable systems. NBC exec VP and general counsel Rick Cotton confirmed the Peacock web is exploring a number of options, including plans similar to the deal struck last week between Fox and Tele-Communications Inc.

Under that deal, TCI agreed to pay Fox $ 30 million annually in exchange for a new cable network.

As reported, NBC has looked at the possibility of creating a “value-added” arrangement in which it would offer TCI a cable service — possibly an affiliate news feed operation known as the NBC News Channel — in place of a straight monetary exchange for its broadcast signal (Daily Variety, May 18).

Cotton acknowledged, however, that concluding such an agreement would be “difficult in light of antitrust constraints.” If all the affiliates don’t go along with the idea, it could be difficult to pull off. Yet with the government prohibiting collusion on the issue between a network and individual broadcasters , NBC and the other webs would walk a fine line in mustering affiliate support for such a concept.

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