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Cable company in dispute with networks

Sally J. Taylor, Tribune Staff Writer, and the Associated Press

When CBS and NBC unveil their high-resolution television signal, Tahoe residents may not be among the viewers.

John Malone, the chairman of cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. butted heads with CBS and NBC over the network giants’ plans to use a space hogging format.

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

”If they want to play spectrum hog, I think it is almost suicidal for them. I think it would be very foolish for them,” Malone said May 5 at the industry’s annual convention in Atlanta.

The networks other than CBS and NBC are using formats that won’t take up too much space, Malone said, adding that he would not voluntarily carry CBS’ and NBC’s new digital high-definition TV channels unless they switch to a format that takes up less channel space.

Such a move would mean that cable TV customers who wanted to watch those networks’ digital channels would bypass the cable and get them from a special receiver.

”We are disappointed,” said Bob Okun, an NBC vice president, adding that the network has no intention of changing its format. Malone’s threatened action ”will disenfranchise consumers and there is always the possibility of a consumer backlash,” Okun said in an interview with The Associated Press.

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

In a conflicting view, Valerie Castellano, TCI’s executive director of communications, said Tuesday consumers will not be left out.

“TCI will absolutely pass through any high-definition signals we receive from broadcasters to the consumer,” Castellano told the Tahoe Daily Tribune from her Walnut Creek office.

The issue illustrates one of the problems in meeting a mandate by the Federal Communications Commission requiring all TV stations to offer digital broadcasts by 2006.

Though some stations say they will begin broadcasting digital signals at the end of this year or the beginning of next, television manufactures are still developing the set technology to receive the signals. The first versions are expected to cost $8,000 to $10,000.

“We have quite a long way to go yet between broadcasting (industries) creating a standard (high-definition signals) and actually broadcasting that standard and manufacturing TV sets,” Castellano said.

“There’s no impact (to consumers) at this moment.”

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

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 agreements for the digital signals.

During the transition, networks will broadcast both types of signal requiring cable providers to devote two or more stations to each network.

Cable carriage is important to broadcasters given that two-thirds of TV homes in the United States get their TV via cable.

The FCC also intends to issue final rules next month aimed at giving cable customers the option of buying set-top boxes in retail stores, Kennard said. A 1996 telecommunications law requires the FCC to do this.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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