Multicasting, diversion or savior?

According to a Reuters report, FCC chairman Michael Powell will propose that cable companies won’t be required to carry digital multicast signals from local broadcasters. The issue has been simmering as part of the mandate for broadcasters to give up analog bandwidth by 2009 (It was originally 2007). Broadcasters think they’re getting screwed (they are, but what’s new?), but the real losers in all this are those to whom the bandwidth belongs — the American people. Most experts predict it’ll be at least a decade before the U.S. goes digital, and that’s a shame.

Other countries are already completely digital in the broadcasting space, but the U.S. lags far behind. At stake are billions of dollars in commercial wireless services that would be made available in the analog bandwidth.

Many stations already broadcast both digital and analog signals. But relatively few Americans own digital televisions, which are expensive, and not many cable subscribers get digital service which offers those channels

Broadcasters have expressed grave reservations about the plan because it would require them to stop airing analog signals by 2009. They have warned millions of Americans who do not subscribe to pay television services and have not bought a new set would not be able to see digital signals.

It is an enormous gamble for broadcasters to cling to the hope that multicasting will be their savior, for even if — by some miracle — the FCC implemented “must carry” for the additional channels, there’s little evidence that anybody would watch whatever local broadcasters could create with their limited resources. Moreover, the whole communications industry is moving in a different direction. (I might view a local weather channel occasionally, but I can get the same information when I want it online.)

I have three suggestions for broadcasters in this regard. One, continue to invest money and manpower in digital distribution systems beyond broadcasting, especially the Internet. Two, aggressively pursue the FCC for a share of the revenue pie in the analog bandwidth market that they’re giving up. Hey, fair’s fair. Three, combine resources with other local broadcasters to provide a “broadcast cable” system in their community, using multicast to provide channels currently distributed only by cable by owned by the networks with whom they’re affiliated. ABC stations could offer a digital broadcast version of ESPN and The Family Channel. NBC could give us USA and Bravo. CBS could provide MTV and VH1, and so on.

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