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Padden sets eye on early digital bow

NEW YORK — Preston Padden, president of the ABC TV Network, said Tuesday that “a strong spirit of cooperation” between the major cable operators and big city TV stations owned by the Big Four broadcast networks could make multichannel digital television a reality sooner than many analysts are predicting.

As keynote speaker at the Kagan Digital Television Summit here Tuesday, Padden referred to a series of meetings earlier this month between the broadcasters and big cable operators such as Tele-Communications Inc. chairman John Malone, Comcast president Brian Roberts and Cox president James Robbins.

“We talked about strategies that would work for us and for cable,” Padden said, “to avoid the disarray and Balkanization” that would develop if the owned TV stations of the broadcasters created new digital channels and bypassed cable by feeding them to people’s homes directly over the air.

At a panel discussion following Padden’s remarks, Tom Rogers, president of cable and business development for NBC, offered the hope that broadcasters and cable operators have learned their lesson from the antagonism that cropped up four years ago when the Big Four demanded new channels from cable systems in exchange for allowing the systems to continue carrying the owned TV stations — the so-called “retransmission consent” law passed by Congress in 1992.

Let’s make a deal

Rogers said the owned and affiliated TV stations could create new local digital channels chock full of news, sports, weather, business and other areas of interest to viewers in a given community and work out a deal with the cable operator to carry them.

But one big question is how much cable systems would be willing to pay the broadcasters for all of these new local services. In his speech, Padden made it clear that the broadcasters wanted to get their hands on some of the $30 billion-plus that cable subscribers, in their monthly bills, pony up every year to the operators, which then funnel a big chunk of that money to the cable networks, whether basic, pay or pay-per-view.

“Despite the fact that we broadcasters have the most expensive, most sought-after and most-watched programming in the business, the networks and our affiliates get virtually none of that revenue,” Padden said.

One potential source of additional advertising revenue, Padden said, is the “interactive marketing” that the digital converter boxes for TV sets would bring into being. “With the click of a remote-control button,” he said, “consumers will be able to tell us if they want a free sample of a new headache remedy or wish to test-drive a new car they just saw. Click on a different icon, and the consumer can actually make a purchase.”

Added value

In the Q&A after the speech, Padden said he thought ABC would be able to put the bite on its viewers watching “Monday Night Football” by “supplying statistics and real-time information on other games” as an add-on service when digital TV is up and running.

To start preparing for digital, Padden said ABC is installing “a simple, consumer-friendly indoor antenna” in test homes to see if digital transmission works in the “real world.” The network also is taking a random sample of consumers to see what kind of digital services they might be interested in.

But beautiful pictures and CD-quality sound won’t mean a thing, Padden said, if the programming is subpar: “People won’t watch a show that’s not interesting just because there are more lines of resolution on the screen.”

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