A Digital Bandwith Battle

Cable giant Tele-Communications is threatening not to carry CBS' and NBC's new digital high-definition TV channels unless they switch to a format that takes up less channel space.

TCI Chairman John Malone, talking to reporters Tuesday at the industry's annual convention, said, "If they want to play spectrum hog, I think it is almost sucidical for them. I think it would be very foolish for them."

CBS and NBC have said they will offer high-definition television, which provides viewers with supersharp pictures and sound, in a technical format dubbed 1080i that Malone said would eat up too much space on cable TV systems.

He said he is talking to ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox to work out voluntary agreements to carry their high-definition and other digital signals on cable systems. Some digital high-definition broadcasts are to begin this fall.

Malone said the networks other than CBS and NBC are using formats that won't take up too much space.

Unless those two change, Malone said he would not voluntarily carry their stations on local cable systems. Such a move would mean that cable TV customers who wanted to watch those networks' digital channels would flick an a/b switch, bypass the cable and get them from an antenna.

Malone said he would carry CBS' and NBC's high-definition signals only if forced. "I'll do whatever the government orders me to do." he said. But he added that carrying the two networks' technical format would force TCI to drop many cable channels.

Next month, the Federal Communications Commission will consider whether to force cable systems nationwide to carry broadcasters' digital channels.

FCC Chairman Bill Kennard, addressing the convention Tuesday, urged the broadcast and cable industries to come up with a plan for cable systems to carry TV stations' digital programs.

"We are going to give you a period of time to try to work these issues out, but we've all got to recognize that the clock is ticking," he told cable executives.

Broadcasters want the FCC to require cable systems to carry their new digital channels along with stations' analog ones, which are currently carried on cable systems. The cable industry prefers voluntary carriage agreements for the digital signals.

"We'll fight 'must-carry' to the death," Malone said.

Some TV stations will begin airing digital shows this fall. All TV stations must offer digital broadcasts by 2006. Cable carriage is important to broadcasters given that two-thirds of TV homes in the United States get their TV via cable.

Written by Jeannine Aversa
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