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CICIORA’S CORNER: 'Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right...'

Sun, 09/30/2007 - 8:30pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

The song “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealer’s Wheel was a hit in the Summer of 1974. The most memorable line and one that seems to scream its appropriateness now is: “Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.” The “left” and “right,” as best I can tell, did not mean “conservative” and “liberal;” it just meant Walter S. Ciciorabeing surrounded by malevolent forces. And the cable industry certainly is “stuck in the middle” these days. One malevolent force wants to impose dual or even triple must-carry and even complete 6 MHz must-carry. Another malevolent force wants to severely limit cable’s ability to innovate.

Here’s another line from the song: “Trying to make some sense of it all, but I can see that it makes no sense at all.” I guess I have an abiding belief that citizens should decide most matters rather than have them decided for them. That’s why I wished for a marketplace approach to the transition from analog broadcast to digital rather than a mandatory February 19, 2009 shut down. It seems the politicians in Washington are getting a little nervous about the public’s reaction.

A good friend, an educated, competent and accomplished woman, was a dinner guest just last week. She knows I’m an engineer and into technology. So she asked me what is new. I went down the list of some of the new devices and services and then mentioned as an aside the February 19, 2009 date for analog shut-off. She was stunned. She wasn’t aware of it and what it means for her. Since we live in the People’s Republic of Connecticut, her first reaction was over the “corporations” that were going to profit from all of this. It took a bit of doing to let her know that this is the work of the biggest corporation of all, the U.S. government. She is incredulous that this could happen.

These sorts of stories are pretty scary to the politicians. And they’ve come up with an idea they think will ameliorate the public’s outrage: Let cable absorb the bulk of the cost and burden. They want cable to carry both the digital and analog versions of broadcast programs, so-called “dual must-carry.” There’s an out if the cable system is “all digital.” To some in government, that means a digital set-top box supplied for every TV in the house. But wait. There’s more. If an HDTV version is available, it may need to be carried as well: “triple must-carry.” There are at least two big logical holes in this story. First, this tactic will do nothing for the most disadvantaged folks who depend on off-air reception for their television. Second, the only channels which select must-carry are the ones which would not gain carriage because of market forces; i.e. because people might actually want to watch them. I’ll let you decide if these are “clowns” or “jokers,” but in either case, they are unfair and dangerous.

And then there’s the “a la carte” issue. Those who know me know I don’t really follow sports closely. (When Time Warner moved us from Denver to Connecticut, they gave us a PrimeStar dish so we could follow the Broncos. After a game, I asked my wife, an EMT, to measure my blood pressure. It was 200-plus over 100-plus. That was the last game I watched – not worth dying over.) So when USA Today comes, the first thing I toss is the sports section (got to take care of my blood pressure). When the Wall Street Journal comes, I toss section C. And I haven’t looked at those pages of fine print of stocks in years. I have my Internet connection for that. Should my newspapers be “a la carte,” too?

The consumer electronics industry is pushing for regulations that would limit cable innovation by forcing cable services to be constrained to only what can work with the products they make - I should say, the lowest common denominator of the products they make, since there are very few standards. The misleading terminology of “Digital Cable Ready” has caused plenty of confusion with subscribers who thought they wouldn’t need a set-top box for VOD or other interactive services. These same folks would like to halt switched digital video because it requires a set-top box or an adapter with DCR. Are our subscribers to be prevented from enjoying additional services because of these limitations? Again, I’ll let you decide if these are “clowns” or “jokers,” but in either case, they are unfair and dangerous.

It seems all we can do is grin and bear it and hope our Washington folks can do some good in the face of all the evil forces. Here’s another line: “It’s so hard to keep this smile from my face, losing control, yeah, I’m all over the place.”

wciciora@ieee.org

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