TCI's Malone Says No to HDTV

Plans by the NBC and CBS networks to transmit 1080i HDTV this fall are "suicidal," according to John Malone, chairman of Tele-Communications, Inc. On May 5, at the National Cable Television Association's annual convention in Atlanta, Malone vowed that TCI won't carry HDTV in its ultimate form. A single channel of full-bore HDTV occupies the same transmission bandwidth as 12 low-resolution channels or several standard-resolution channels.

"If they [NBC and CBS] want to play spectrum hog, I think it is almost suicidal for them," Malone said at the convention. "I think it would be very foolish." In addition, he said TCI will carry HDTV only if forced to do so by law, and it will have to drop several channels from its offerings to comply. Representative Billy Tauzin (R-LA), chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, says he will try to do exactly that if the cable giant won't willingly cooperate.

If Malone makes good on his threat, television viewers in TCI's areas will have to switch from cable to rooftop antennas to receive HDTV. Another---perhaps better---alternative is satellite-delivered HDTV. Some localities have restrictions that prevent consumers from having both cable and satellite service. As a result, TCI's maneuver could mean a diminishing subscribership. In a puzzling statement, the company said that none of its customers with HDTV receivers will be "disenfranchised from receiving an HDTV broadcast signal through the cable system" if they can receive it over the air.

TCI will carry ABC and Fox, who have agreed to transmit 720p. Negotiations are in progress with NBC and CBS to modify their plans, but these appear to have little likelihood of success. NBC Vice President Bob Okun said his network has no intention of changing its plans to suit TCI or anyone else. "We are disappointed," he said to characterize his company's reaction to Malone's stance.

William Kennard, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, urged the contentious parties to continue working toward a solution. The FCC wants cable companies to voluntarily carry network HDTV in addition to all current programming, because the majority of TV reception in the US is via cable. Next month, the agency will decide whether to force them to do so.

The Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA) expressed "surprise and dismay" that TCI had reversed its position on HDTV. Less than three weeks earlier, TCI Chief Executive Officer Leo Hindery, Jr. promised Congress that TCI would carry all HDTV formats.

Noting that more than two-thirds of American homes rely on cable for their television service, CEMA President Gary Shapiro said, "Cable services must carry HDTV . . . It is now obvious that the FCC needs to enforce the 'must carry' laws for HDTV to succeed. American consumers, including TCI customers, deserve the very best quality TV signals."

With conflicting pronouncements made by its two top executives, TCI's position on 1080i HDTV remains unclear. Two days after Malone stirred up the hornet's nest with his remarks, The Wall Street Journal quoted Hindery as saying that TCI will stick by its commitment to carry HDTV: "Both John and I swear on a stack of bibles that the statements we made two weeks ago are still our statements." The two executives might need to get together and coordinate their public-relations efforts. The Journal said Malone "couldn't be reached for comment."