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Policy

Cable: We're DTV-Switch Ready

6/07/2009 2:06 AM Eastern

Days ahead of the June 12 transition to digital from analog television broadcasting, the cable industry is ready to address any problems, is communicating and coordinating well with stations and will do whatever it takes to make the switch as smooth as possible.

That was the message to the Federal Communications Commission and other industry stakeholders from National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow at a digital-television transition briefing at the agency's headquarters here.

At the FCC's June 3 session, McSlarrow said the NCTA would reopen its DTV transition “war room” full-time, as a link among cable engineers to insure a “rapid response” to any issues of cable carriage of digital signals.

The NCTA would also host conference calls among engineering, operations and communications executives “before, during, and after June 12,” he said.

In written testimony, McSlarrow indicated there was close coordination between cable and broadcasters during the national soft analog cutoff test on May 21 and there were “no apparent problems” with the lines of communication.

The cable industry also is prepared to defend itself against charges of trying to use the transition as an opportunity to convert nonsubscribers into paying customers.

Cable received its share of praise for its education campaign and for stepping up big time with a call-center effort that it eventually handed off to the government when the funds to coordinate it became available.

But it also took criticism from Consumers Union policy analyst Joel Kelsey, who told the FCC his group was concerned that cable operators were trying to use the transition to upsell their service. MSOs, he said, were promising low-cost basic cable as a way to gain customers, then trying to sell would-be subscribers on more expensive service rather than clearly laying out their options.

McSlarrow bristled at what he saw as a broad-brush attack on an isolated issue. Faced with the charge, McSlarrow said, “particular groups get up every day looking for a gratuitous shot at my industry.”

He said he was not about to “reprise my usual role of looking sheepish.”

McSlarrow said he was both “not the least bit defensive” and not saying isolated incidents of upselling hadn't happened. “I'm not going to argue that there aren't incidents or examples throughout the country in an industry with tens of thousands of customer-service reps where they get it perfect every time.”

But McSlarrow was ready with evidence of the industry's willingness to market against its own interests for for the sake of a smoother broadcast transition.

“The big picture is pretty clear,” he said, citing $250 million the industry spent on a campaign promoting the DTV coupon program and converter boxes. “That was spent not on marketing of our services, but on an alternative for dealing with the transition.”

He also pointed to millions of dollars spent on the DTV call center with a “completely neutral script that laid out all of the options.”

FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein agreed that the NCTA had stepped up to the plate in DTV education, and asked Kelsey whether the incidents were isolated or systemic.

Kelsey said his beef was not with the NCTA, and he appreciatd the call-center efforts. But he did have concerns with “some cable companies” for not delivering on what their ads promised.

McSlarrow said he thought the industry had “stepped up far beyond the call of duty,” including offering low-cost and, in some cases, no-cost basic service. But he also said that if somebody wanted to bring up isolated incidents of upselling, he would be “happy to address them.” Cable-operator CEOs had issued directives to make sure that CSRs give accurate info, McSlarrow added.

Adelstein encouraged McSlarrow and Kelsey to “work together to resolve any concerns.”

September