Sinclair resists senators on HDTV Smith clashes with McCain over programming plans

September 18, 1997|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The president of Sinclair Broadcast Group yesterday endured sharp questioning for his coolness to high definition television as key senators pressed broadcasters to deliver on commitments to offer HDTV.

David Smith of Baltimore-based Sinclair has been perhaps the most vocal broadcast executive to recently express doubts about the commercial viability of carrying HDTV on new digital channels.

Hardly budging, Smith told the Senate Commerce Committee that he's unsure whether Sinclair would make the investments necessary so that even 1 percent of the programming on Sinclair's 29 stations is in HDTV.

"I can't see far enough to say what the public will demand," he DTC said. "The belief that prettier is always better is not always the case. If that were true, Polaroid would never have made it."

The committee's chairman, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, told Smith that if broadcasters don't provide enough programming, television set manufacturers will not produce the sets necessary to receive HDTV.

"That's what bothers me about your business plan, or lack of a business plan," said McCain, appearing irritated with Smith.

But Smith and ABC Television Network, which had also hinted at forsaking HDTV, pledged to offer some high definition television. Smith said Sinclair "envisions the use of HDTV, at the outset, for sporting events and certain prime time programs in response to audience and marketplace demand."

ABC Television Network President Preston Padden, said, "We still absolutely believe that broadcasters must have the ability to broadcast HDTV -- as much HDTV as consumers demand -- to remain viable, and we're committed to that goal."

In Baltimore, Sinclair owns Fox-45 and provides programming to WNUV-TV, Channel 54.

McCain called the hearing after broadcasters, led by Sinclair and ABC, said they might not broadcast HDTV on channels granted by the federal government to assist in the industry's decade-long switch from analog to digital programming.

Instead, some broadcasters said they might "multicast," a term that means essentially slicing the channels into several broadcast stations of only slightly better quality.

Sinclair last month announced that it intended to pursue multi-casting, saying that it wanted to offer data transmission and try to get a piece of the cable industry's $30 billion in sales from pay-per-view programming. But yesterday Smith said Sinclair, which had planned a demonstration of multicasting in Baltimore early next year, will now expand that demonstration to include some HDTV programming.

To make the transition to digital programming, stations will spend millions of dollars. Equipping stations for HDTV will cost millions more.

Lawmakers such as McCain and ranking Democrat Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina were upset, largely because broadcasters had pleaded for the free digital channels for almost a decade so that they could offer HDTV.

"The broadcast industry caught the HDTV wave then and, at least until several weeks ago, rode it in virtual, if not total, unanimity," McCain said yesterday. McCain had proposed selling the channels in an auction that would have produced billions of dollars.

Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, the Louisiana Republican who chairs the House telecommunications, trade and consumer protection subcommittee, said broadcasters should know better. "American broadcasters are not, in effect, getting six new channels in exchange for their one existing channel," he said.

He said broadcasters should have three options: broadcast HDTV, return the channels if they don't broadcast HDTV, or pay new fees or face additional public service obligations if they "multicast."

Reed Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, testified that consumers -- not the FCC -- should decide on the appropriate mix of high definition television and regular digital programming.

Referring to the experimental HDTV broadcast of Tuesday night's Baltimore Orioles' game, he said, "The station that has the Orioles will show that in high definition."

Lawmakers and Clinton administration officials said a stalemate between manufacturers and broadcasters might prove to be a huge obstacles to HDTV: Manufacturers might wait for HDTV programming before they make HDTV sets, expected to cost more than $2,000, while broadcasters wait for the sets before they start programming.

"Something has to be done to break this logjam," said Larry Irving, assistant secretary for communications and information for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

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Pub Date: 9/18/97

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