BY ANTHONY CRUPI What started off as a classic grudge match between two well-balanced adversaries turned into a savage and unforgettable keel-hauling. And when the final gun went off, all that was left was bitterness, allegations of wrongdoing and the sense that a huge opportunity had been squandered. No, we’re not talking about Super Bowl XXXVII here, although that was bad enough (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers vivisected the Oakland Raiders by a 48-21 count in a game that was compelling only if you had money on the over/under); it was the skirmish between broadcast and cable immediately afterward that generated the most heat. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) initiated the trash-talking the day after the big game, issuing a press release blaming cable systems across the country for failing to deliver the ABC stations’ high-definition Super Bowl feed. According to an NAB survey of cable carriage of digital and hi-def TV signals, viewers in 64 of 80 markets where broadcasters offer digital signals were unable to get the programming from their local cable systems. Because those numbers weren’t broken down on a market-by-market basis by the NAB, the agency’s claims were rather difficult to substantiate. But a close look at the relevant data suggests that any problems that may have arisen on Super Sunday could be traced to HD’s growing pains and not wholesale cable neglect. According to the latest Kagan World Media estimates and analysis of CEA data, there simply were not enough HD-capable set-tops deployed in the U.S. market for cable carriage of the ABC broadcast to become a reality this year. It breaks down like so: Of the total number of U.S. TV households, a scant 4.3% belong to the DTV install base. Of these, a mere 120,000 are HD cable subs. Those are some slim pickings, a fact which makes the NAB’s subsequent full-on blitz a questionable tactic. Still, NAB SVP of communications Dennis Wharton held firm, reiterating the agency’s earlier statement. “It’s unclear why the cable industry is refusing to give viewers access to HD programming delivered by local broadcasters,” Wharton said. “But I don’t think it’s a capacity issue.” Although cable shot back with some heated rhetoric of its own, Rob Stoddard, SVP of communications and public affairs for the NCTA, was “on message” when he spoke to Cable World late Friday afternoon. “Right now the footprints don’t quite overlap,” Stoddard said, referring to the scarcity of markets served by both HD-capable broadcast and cable facilities. “It’s symptomatic of the times,” Stoddard continued. “But once all the technology is in place, these kind of attacks will be a thing of the past.” While the argument might go on for some time in the same knee-biting, eye-gouging fashion, there are some indications that things went much more smoothly on the local level. Peter Taubkin, VP government relations and public affairs for Time Warner Cable’s Albany division, said that HD wouldn’t have been up and running in time for Sunday’s game without an “unprecedented cooperative effort between cable, broadcast and retail.” Although Albany is not an HD-signal market, in less than five days TWC was able to get ABC’s hi-def feed through the fiber and into the head-end. More than 150 new HD boxes went out into the field, thanks to a web of retail support, Road Runner e-mail alerts and information offered on TWC-Albany’s website. “If there was ever an all-hands- on-deck effort to get the word out on a service, this was it,” Taubkin said. At the end of the day, was it worth all the fuss? Albany resident Kyle Davidson, an educator and filmmaker, said he’d give the Super Bowl broadcast a B minus. “There were some MPEG frame hiccups, but otherwise the picture was pristine,” Davidson said. “The sound was the real problem, though. The poor synching made the booth segments look like an old Godzilla movie.” Cable will give HD another shot next week as TNT broadcasts the NBA All-Star Game in full 1080i HD. Rather than charging ops for the costly 1080i feed, TNT is asking that each MSO system run a number of free promo spots for the game in the days leading up to the event. This marks the first time an all-star game has been broadcast on a cable network, and the first time TNT will broadcast anything in hi-def.