Video hardware

Retrans Relief?

Does CableLabs have something tricky up its sleeve?

Could be. With MSOs under fresh assault from broadcasters on the retransmission-consent front, Cable Television Laboratories Inc. (CableLabs) announced late last week that it's trying to develop a new cable interface that would let digital cable set-top boxes take in off-air broadcast TV signals. The stated aim of this effort is to deliver DTV signals "seamlessly" to cable subscribers through digital set-tops so that they can enjoy "an integrated viewing experience," even if they don't have a digital TV set.

Sounds pretty innocuous, no? Yes, until you consider that these next-generation or souped-up, older set-tops, equipped with built-in off-air digital tuners, could offer cable operators another way to deliver local broadcast signals to their customers. With these new off-air tuners, cable subscribers could use regular old TV antennas to get their local digital channels while still relying on their set-top boxes for the full cable programming lineup, similar to satellite TV customers.

What this means is that aggressive broadcasters like Sinclair Broadcast Group, which recently held up Mediacom Communications Corp. for retransmission-consent fees after a nasty public battle, would not be able to cut off their signals to at least some cable subscribers anymore. As a result, the broadcasters would lose much leverage in their high-stakes carriage negotiations with MSOs.

CableLabs officials aren't stressing that point. They say the off-air initiative simply makes sense right now, given that the nation's deadline for converting over to digital TV is less than two years away. They also note that RF technology has advanced so much over the past few years, making such integrated off-air digital tuners possible.

Still, we wonder if the cable R&D consortium isn't up to a little mischief here. Although CableLabs hasn't spelled out a timeline for the project yet, we may find out soon enough.

— Alan Breznick, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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