BY W. F. GLOEDE I love broadcasters. I really do. Covered them for years at my old shop. Eddie Fritts, who heads up the National Association of Broadcasters, is a decent and very engaging guy. One hell of a lobbyist, too. But what the broadcasters did last week can only be characterized as a cheap shot. The NAB put out a press release chastising the cable industry for what it claimed was spotty pickup of ABC’s telecast of Super Bowl XXXVII in HDTV. The NAB said it conducted a survey and found that viewers in 64 of the 80 markets in which the HD signal was available over the air could not get the hi-def feed through their cable company. It further claimed that cable systems serving only 27% of U.S. TV households made the feed available. That, I would submit, is remarkable, and the cable industry should be lauded, not rebuked. To be sure, adding a hi-def feed for a day is not a simple matter of pointing a dish and flicking a switch. My local cable operator, Cablevision of Oakland, N.J., which just went digital late last year and was not yet rolling out hi-def service, deployed HD boxes to digital customers who requested them and got the ABC feed up, all in a little more than a week’s time. Free. I found this nothing short of a feat of magic, particularly since I had spent the previous week simply trying to find out whether the ABC O&O in New York had a digital signal on the air. I called the station manager, the chief engineer, two PR people and even submitted my question via e-mail to the station’s website. No response. Now, I don’t hold it against WABC that its digital transmitter went down with the World Trade Center. I just figured there was a chance that the station had put up a temporary transmitter, which it apparently has not. In fact, in the nation’s largest TV market, you can get only two major digital signals off the air, those of WCBS and WNET, the public station, both of which maintain transmitters atop the Empire State Building (which unfortunately does not have room for any more). The rest of the broadcasters in the market have plans for a 2,000-foot transmission tower, which we’re told would be the tallest freestanding structure in the world. New York does not want such a tower. But Jersey City and Bayonne, N.J. do. The broadcast consortium thinks Bayonne the better site. But now the state environmental czar has stepped in and questioned the tower’s impact on the environment, which is curious since the area around the proposed site contains one of the highest concentrations of toxic waste dumps in the country. It will be years before the tower is built, so one would think the broadcasters would be putting up temporary transmitters. But why spend money when you can drop it to the bottom line? There’s the rub. Like almost everything else, this is all about money. I read an interesting AP dispatch early last week about the great picture and sound provided in the ABC Super Bowl telecast. I’ll agree on the picture, but to my ear, the sound was done on the cheap. It was not what I know as surround sound, as one would expect on a hi-def broadcast, a fact that became painfully evident when the ads from the movie studios came on and blew us across the room. Come to think of it, since I got my HDTV set, which has an on-board line doubler, I have noticed how dirty the analog transmissions of Fox and ABC were during the NFL playoffs. CBS was markedly superior, in picture and sound. I found this both on digital cable and DirecTV. Smells like cost cutting to me; accountants mucking up the back-haul. Yup, all about money. The NAB has been on the defensive of late as the National Cable Telecommunications Association has forged ahead to lead in adoption of various elements of the Powell Plan for digital transition. You really can’t blame them for taking a shot. But they are being disingenuous; what they want is carriage for the digital signals under all circumstances, maybe even for a fee, so they can maximize revenue through multicasting. Yup, all about money, not hi-def. Broadcasters were not given public spectrum so they could maximize revenue. They got it in order to serve the public, making a legitimate profit as they did so. Not long ago, Rupert Murdoch, who is a very successful broadcaster, noted in a conversation with stock analysts that some of the company’s stations were operating with margins as high as 60%. This was wonderful news to the analysts. But I would question whether a 60% margin is much more than legitimate or even reasonable, considering that the pipeline belongs to the public. And they want more? Enjoy the NBA All-Star game in hi-def on TNT (through In Demand) this weekend. There will be no broadcasters involved. In the end, it would be nice to have broadcast HDTV. But cable may not need it after all.

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