Fans with HDTV fume at Super Bowl picture

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Shawn Henson, an avid Ravens fan, bought herself a 65-inch Toshiba high-definition television as a Christmas present this year and planned to have a big Super Bowl party with her new purchase as the main attraction.

But while watching the National Football League playoffs last weekend on the Fox network, she discovered she didn't truly have high-definition - the new technology that promises a picture at least five times as clear as that of regular television.

Without it, the images on her screen look stretched and out of focus to her. Now, she and her friends are thinking of carpooling to a bar Feb. 6 to watch the Super Bowl.

"I spent almost $3,000 and the picture is horrible," said Henson, a photographer from Cockeysville. "This is the biggest game of the year."

Henson and tens of thousands of other owners of high-definition televisions are caught in a continuing feud between some broadcasters and cable companies. The local broadcasters want to charge the cable companies to retransmit their digital television signals, but the cable operators are resisting.

The fight has blocked HDTV broadcasts in certain markets for years. It is coming to the fore in some places this month because thousands of people who bought a pricey high-definition set at Christmas looked forward to Super Bowl XXXIX as an event to show off their new toy. Now they're discovering that they can't.

The HDTV-Super Bowl quandary is surfacing in cities where the local Fox affiliate, which is carrying the Super Bowl, is owned by a broadcasting company embroiled in one of these fee disputes. Baltimore is one of those places.

Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., the Hunt Valley company that is one of the largest independent owners of television stations in the country, owns Fox 45 in Baltimore. It wants Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable TV provider, to pay to retransmit the station for high-definition viewing. The Philadelphia-based cable operator doesn't want to pay the fee, 50 cents per subscriber per month, that Sinclair proposes.

In Baltimore City and county, Comcast estimates that fewer than 10 percent of its subscribers own HDTV sets.

HDTV owners who receive their signal via satellite television are not affected by the fight.

Sinclair said none of the cable companies in the 20 markets around the country where it owns a Fox station has agreed to pay the fee. While companies on both sides say they continue to negotiate, the issue could take months or longer to settle.

Disputes between broadcasters and cable companies over transmission charges aren't uncommon, but the broadcaster seldom wins. It might risk losing ad revenue by withholding its signals from cable companies.

"It's something that you see both sides butt their heads over, but the cable companies are unwilling to back down," said Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which represents cable operators who serve more than 90 percent of the nation's households with cable TV.

The seed for the dispute over high-definition transmission was planted almost a decade ago when Congress prescribed the conversion of the 50-year-old analog TV system to digital broadcast by 2006, or when 85 percent of television households could access digital television.

Broadcasters were given an additional amount of "spectrum," the publicly owned airwaves that carry TV, radio and public safety transmissions, for the digital conversion. Cable and satellite operators, theoretically, would have to work out agreements to retransmit the television signals.

The issue lay dormant until broadcasters began investing millions to install digital equipment and people began buying HDTV sets in larger numbers.

The special sets can cost 10 times as much as regular TVs. But they offer a picture at least five times as clear. A typical television has 200,000 pixels - the components that make up the picture. An HDTV can have as many as 2 million. Some people compare high-definition television to looking out a window.

According to the Consumer Electronics Association, about 10 percent of households have HDTVs now. That's still an early stage, roughly the national penetration of personal computers in 1984, cellular phones in 1992 and digital cameras in 2000. Sports programming, however, is one of its hotter selling points.

"The Super Bowl is a very high-rate kind of commodity," said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit public interest law firm. "You have a hard-core group of people who really want to see that in high-def."

Sinclair said it charges cable providers a fee so it can recoup the $1 million it has spent at each of its 62 stations to upgrade technology to accommodate high-definition. Sinclair and other broadcasters also argue that cable companies make money off HDTV by charging customers extra for the digital cable they need to access it.

"The broadcasters, having invested a significant amount of money, are looking for the cable company, which has benefited from HDTV, to step up and help [to pay for] the local station digital transmissions," said Nat Ostroff, Sinclair's vice president of new technology. "Advertisers are not paying a premium of any significance for appearing on the HDTV model.

"Given that the business model breaks down on HDTV, they should have to help us pay for the service," Ostroff said. "Universally, as a matter of policy, the cable company refuses to do that. ... They're trying to get something for nothing and make money off it, and we find it close to thievery."

Comcast declined to provide specifics about its negotiations with Sinclair, which began before this football season. Channel 213 on its system has been set aside for the high-definition Fox stations across the country in case an agreement is struck.

Viewers in Harford, Anne Arundel and Howard counties can turn to that station now and watch the Super Bowl in high-definition via the Washington Fox station. That option is not available for viewers in Baltimore City and county because Sinclair has exclusive rights to those markets.

"We would have liked to reach an agreement a long time ago and we'd like to reach an agreement in the near future," said David Nevins, a spokesman for Comcast.

The battle over retransmission fees generally has pitted the smaller independent broadcasters against cable providers. Larger companies are often able to work out other concessions, such as where their station runs on the cable lineup.

Nexstar Broadcasting Group Inc., a Texas company, also has refused to give high-definition access to cable stations in the dozen midsize markets where it owns Fox affiliates, from New York state to Texas. Thousands of its Fox viewers won't see the Super Bowl in high-definition either.

"If they think we're going to give them our channels for free and then they can charge $10 or $15 a month for digital cable, then they can drop dead," Duane Lammers, chief operating officer for Nexstar, said of the cable providers.

Cable operators aren't impressed by that argument: They say the broadcasters didn't pay for the added spectrum rights from the government and are asking cable companies to pay for programming that is already free to viewers. They also say they have had to make their own sizable investments for digital programming.

"The issue at heart is that broadcasters are trying to insist that they are compensated for something they get from the government for free," said Keith Cocozza, a spokesman for Time Warner Cable, the No. 2 cable provider.

HDTV patrons aren't all that interested in the details of the dispute. They just want their high-definition programs. They've been enticed by commercials from both Fox and Comcast boasting about high-definition coverage of the National Football League championship game between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles - only to find out they don't have it.

Charley Adams, a 24-year-old electrical engineer in Baltimore County's Middle River, finally convinced his wife to let him get an HDTV box from Comcast this year. He discovered after watching the NFL playoffs that he can't view the big game in high-definition.

Viewers who live within about 25 miles of the Fox transmitter on TV Hill in North Baltimore can access Sinclair's digital line directly by buying a high-definition digital receiver box - if their television doesn't have one internally - and an antenna. Both can be bought at electronics stores.

But after shelling out $2,000 for his TV, Adams isn't willing to pay a few hundred dollars more for the box.

"I think they should just settle it," Adams said. "I wish they would just come to an agreement so we can watch football."

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