Ness hopeful about cabler-station talks

Could head off must-carry regulations

ATLANTA — If TV stations and cable systems can reach voluntary carriage agreements for broadcasters’ digital signals, it would go a long way toward heading off mandatory must-carry regulations, FCC commissioner Susan Ness said Monday.

“To the extent that the industries are working together, (that) reduces the need for regulation,” said Ness during a panel session at the annual National Cable Television Assn. confab under way here. However, Ness added that she is still strongly committed to ensuring that cable does not become a “bottleneck” that restricts viewers’ access to broadcasters’ digital signals — including high-definition television.

Singing softer tune

Ness seems to have backed off earlier rhetoric in which she emphasized her worries about cable’s ability to act as a techno-logical hurdle for broadcasters seeking to make the digital transition. But during the last several weeks both Time Warner and Tele-Communications Inc. have stated publicly that they will be able to act as a conduit for the digital signals offered by broad-casters. While cablers say they are willing to pass through the broadcasting HDTV signals, they do not want to be required to.

For most formats, the next generation of set-top boxes will be able to convert a digital signal for a regular analog television set. That ability to act as a converter is expected to play a central role in the speed with which broadcasters’ digital programming takes hold in the marketplace.

The lone exception is TCI, which decided just last weekend to purchase 5 million set-top boxes from General Instrument that do not have the ability to act as a converter for the 1,080-line interlace signal chosen by CBS and NBC as their HDTV format of choice. That means TCI subscribers will not be able to see any CBS or NBC high-definition programming unless they purchase a HDTV set. Those are expected to cost somewhere between $2,000 and $10,000 each.

Ness refused to comment on the specifics of TCI’s plans, pointing out that any details of the FCC’s policy would be worked out later this year when the agency plans to launch an inquiry into its digital must-carry rules.

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