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NAB's Fritts takes beef to 'cable cartel'

Mon, 04/19/2004 - 8:00pm
Brooks Boliek

Copyright 2004 BPI Communications, Inc.

The Hollywood Reporter

April 20, 2004, Tuesday

Las Vegas - Broadcasters got their marching orders Monday as the head of the National Association of Broadcasters used a Cold War metaphor in an attempt to rally his troops for the coming battles with industrial competitors and government policy-makers.

In his annual state-of-the-industry speech, NAB president and CEO Edward Fritts evoked the memory of President Reagan standing at the Berlin Wall as he challenged Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall."

Only this time the challenge wasn't from one head of state to the other over a powerful physical symbol of totalitarianism. This time, it was one capitalist challenging another to remove an invisible barrier that Fritts claims is dooming his industry to the same fate as the Soviet empire.

"Here's our message to (Comcast CEO) Brian Roberts and the rest of the cable cartel: Tear down that wall! Stop blocking access to the best TV pictures the world has ever seen," Fritts said.

Fritts was putting a voice to the frustration many in his industry feel about cable's intransigence over passing through broadcasters' digital TV signal. Cable operators often "down-convert" the digital signal, making it something less. This "down rezing" saves cable bandwidth but makes the digital picture less appealing.

Federal regulators also have begun to consider allowing cable the ability to lower the resolution. In a proposal by FCC media bureau chief Ken Ferree, cable customers would be considered to have received a digital TV signal even if its quality had been degraded so that it could be received by customers who subscribe to analog service.

Under the law, broadcasters are supposed to give the government the analog channels it uses now in exchange for digital ones. The switch is set for 2006, or when 85% of the television audience can receive a digital TV signal. Ferree's plan, in effect, sets a hard 2009 deadline.

Fritts and the broadcast industry want the FCC to require cable and satellite distributors to carry the entire digital TV signal, whether it is in the supersharp high-definition format or several channels of standard-definition programming.

"It is mystifying why the FCC continues to delay action on perhaps the biggest decision of all: cable must-carry of DTV and multicast signals," Fritts told the appreciative throng. "Nearly 1,200 local stations are broadcasting digital signals, but only a third of these are carried on cable. Our DTV and high-definition signals are dressed up with no place to go. I call on the FCC to break down the cable industry's digital dam and let the free broadcast signals flow."

While Fritts called on the government to force cable to carry the broadcasters' digital signals, he asked it for forbearance on its push to regulate indecent speech.

"As an industry, we are working through a very difficult issue, mindful that voluntary initiatives are preferable to government-imposed mandates," he said. "Self-regulation can be flexible, adaptable and can be tailored to each station's unique circumstances, everything that government regulation is not."

Fritts' remarks came the same day most of the major TV networks, the creative guilds and free speech advocates asked the FCC to reconsider its decision on the Bono case.

In that decision on the singer's use of a version of the word "fuck" on the Golden Globe Awards telecast, the FCC decided that the use of an unplanned single expletive is both "indecent" and "profane" and could cause the station on which it aired to get fined.

Even Fritts' admonition to the government didn't come without a swipe at cable, saying the galvanizing moment of the debate during this year's Super Bowl, when Janet Jackson's breast was bared, was cable-generated.

"If a similar incident had happened on any of the hundreds of cable or satellite channels, it would have been greeted with a collective shrug by the American public and policy-makers," he said. "Why? Because 'wardrobe malfunctions' are part of the cable and satellite landscape Monday through Friday, 24/7."

But public policy-makers defended the recent crackdown on indecent speech. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., whose bill would increase the fines to a maximum of $500,000, said the industry has gone too far.

"We didn't change the standard one iota," he said. "We simply raised the fine."

Upton told conventioneers that he reviewed all of the FCC's recent indecency actions and was appalled by what he saw in the transcripts.

"It was more than a word or two, it was page after page of triple-X stuff," he said.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, also put cable on warning.

"In the foreseeable future, there will be legislation based on the functional use, when all the rules will comply," he said.

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