TCI’s Malone sparks HDTV format fight

Swears to bow only to gov't regulation

NCTA
ATLANTA — Just as it looked like digital detente was developing between cablers and broadcasters, Tele-Communications Inc. chairman John Malone vowed Tuesday not to carry the HDTV format preferred by NBC and CBS unless TCI is forced by the government.

Malone’s statement comes just two weeks after TCI prexy Leo Hindery, testifying in front of Congress, promised that TCI would be willing to accommodate the format (known as 1080 line interlace) in the future.

But Tuesday, Malone contradicted Hindery’s testimony. “1080I will not get on my systems,” Malone said. “I won’t voluntarily put this spectrum hog on my systems.”

Malone, and the cable industry generally, do not like 1080I because the format takes up more space on cable’s wired network. Malone argues that carriage of 1080I will force cablers to drop other programming in order to carry the HDTV channels. The 780 line progressive format — which is preferred by ABC and Fox — is easier for cablers to manipulate and compress.

House Telecommunications subcommittee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) wasted no time in reacting to the Malone statement. “If John Malone wants war, then he will get one,” said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson, who also said that if Malone is waiting for a government mandate on carriage of the 1080I format then, “He better get prepared to receive his marching orders.”

Well aware of the political implications of Malone’s statement, TCI late Tuesday issued a “clarification” under both Malone’s and Hindery’s names, saying it “will continue to work with vendors” pursuing the 1080I format.

However, Malone had been very clear with reporters during more than 40 minutes of questioning. Asked about the discrepancies between the printed statement and Malone’s verbal comments, TCI spokeswoman, LaRae Marsik, said, “I have no way of crawling inside of John’s brain and telling you what he is thinking.”

Malone’s statement puts at risk cable’s hope of avoiding a federal requirement to carry broadcasters’ digital channels. Just hours before Malone talked to reporters, FCC chairman Bill Kennard said he would consider a digital carriage requirement if the two industries failed to reach an agreement among themselves.

NBC officials said Tuesday that they have no intention of changing HDTV formats to accommodate Malone. “We have made our commitment to 1080I, and that is what we will be doing in primetime,” said NBC’s Bob Okun, senior vice president, Washington. Okun also pointed to the contradiction between Hindery’s statement in front of the House Telecommunications sub-committee and Malone’s statement Tuesday to reporters. “Unless congressional testimony doesn’t count, then we are scratching our heads,” Okun said.

Malone made the statement to reporters at the National Cable Television Assn.’s annual convention under way here. It also comes one day after he confirmed that the first 5 million digital set-top boxes TCI has ordered from General Instrument will not have the ability to process the 1080I signal. Hindery specifically promised Congress that the boxes would be upgraded for the 1080I format, if that is what the marketplace demanded.

Under the current technical configuration, only those TCI subscribers with HDTV sets will be able to watch CBS and NBC HDTV programming. But for those networks using the 720p format, the TCI box will convert the digital signal for display on a regular analog set.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters seized on Malone’s statement to press its case that the FCC should write rules requiring cablers to carry broadcasters’ digital signals.

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