This dogfight between longtime rival industries - both of which are about to begin a years-long transition to digital TV - is being played out at the Federal Communications Commission and in Congress, where the potential impact on the public of this brave new TV world is being considered.
The House Commerce Committee's telecommunications subcommittee was holding a hearing on the issue Thursday.
Among those scheduled to testify were executives from ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, along with cable companies Telecommunications Inc. and Time Warner Cable. Representatives from computer companies Compaq and Intel and retailer Circuit City also were invited.
During the transition to digital, local TV stations will be allowed to have two channels: one for digital and the other for the current analog TV system.
But most cable systems currently don't have the channel space to carry both. Systems will have space to carry both the digital and analog signals only after they are upgraded to get more capacity. The process in now under way.
Currently, cable systems carry local TV stations on their systems under either negotiated agreements with the stations or under the government's mandatory carriage provisions, known as "must carry" rules. Stations get to chose between the two options.
Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., the subcommittee's chairman, generally prefers to have voluntary carriage agreements among local cable systems and broadcasters, rather than a government-imposed requirement.
"We may be able to use the bully pulpit to prod cable in the same direction without resorting to legislation," said Tauzin's spokesman, Ken Johnson. Tauzin, however, hasn't closed the door to legislation. "We don't want cable to be a roadblock to that progress," he said, referring to broadcasters' switch to digital.
"It is vitally important that broadcasters' digital signals be carried by all cable systems," says Eddie Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters. "We must have full certainty that this wonderful new digital technology is available to all Americans and that cable has no right to deprive them of it."
The cable industry favors voluntary carriage agreements.
"The idea that must carry is essential or central to the successful transition to digital TV is simply nonsense," says Decker Anstrom, president of the National Cable Television Association.
The Federal Communications Commission is expected to consider the problem this summer.
Cable TV customers who buy pricey new digital TV sets this fall must depend on their cable companies to give them new set-top boxes that not only receive broadcasters' digital signals but display them ithout degrading picture and sound quality.
This matter, which also will be examined by the subcommittee, is of utmost importance to TV set makers, who believe the new high-definition signals, which offers the sharpest pictures, will drive sales of their new sets.
Some stations have volunteered to begin broadcasting some shows in digital this fall. Network-affiliated stations in the top 10 markets must begin by May 1999. Eventually, all stations must switch to digital by 2006.
By JEANNINE AVERSA, Associated Press Writer. ©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed