WASHINGTON -- The nation's largest cable companies promised lawmakers Thursday that they would not block broadcasters' digital signals -- including high definition, the sharpest of them -- from TV sets.
The assurances, given at a House Commerce telecommunications subcommittee hearing, are that the companies' future digital set-top boxes will both pass along broadcasters' digital signals to pricey digital TV sets when they debut this fall and not degrade picture and sound quality in the process.
"Cable will not be -- as some have falsely asserted -- a bottleneck to digital," Tele-Communications Inc. President Leo Hindery said.
"Time Warner Cable believes it is extremely important that we be able to provide broadcast digital high definition television signals to any of our customers that purchase broadcast digital-ready TV sets," said company chairman Joseph Collins. "After all, those customers who are willing to invest in a high definition television receiver probably are some of our best customers."
Time Warner plans to begin offering digital cable services this year. TCI is already offering digital cable in select markets. To receive them, customers rent a digital box from their cable company.
The two companies, through systems directly and indirectly owned, account for about half of the nation's cable customers.
TCI's existing digital set-top boxes can't pass through broadcasters' high definition signals, Mr. Hindery told reporters after the hearing. But the 15 million boxes on order -- some of which could be in homes by March 1999 -- will now be able to pass through high definition signals and display them on digital TV sets at their fullest quality, Mr. Hindery said.
Originally, those 15 million boxes would not have been able to do this, Mr. Hindery said. But the company altered its plan. The boxes are now being modified. Those boxes will work with new digital sets and existing analog. On an analog TV set, however, a viewer would be able to receive the HDTV show, but would not be watching it in the supersharp high definition format.
Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association, and some broadcasters had complained that that TCI's future set-top boxes would not pass through at full quality broadcasters' high-definition signals. This, Mr. Shapiro said, would jeopardize the sale of the digital TV sets, which he believes will be driven by consumers' desire to watch shows in the highly defined format.
"TCI will be able to pass through all -- I repeat all -- broadcasting HDTV formats to new digital TVs and convert certain of these formats for display on existing analog TVs," Mr. Hindery testified.
Mr. Shapiro told that panel that "if cable companies are allowed to dilute HDTV signals, the result will likely be a widespread consumer backlash." NBC Television Stations President Scott Sassa echoed the point.
While the cable executives offered assurances over the issue of equipment compatibly, they weren't budging on another matter being pushed by broadcasters and TV set makers: having the government force cable companies to carry broadcasters' digital signals. Cable favors voluntary carriage agreements.
This dogfight between longtime rival industries -- both of which are about to begin a years-long transition to digital TV -- is being played out at the Federal Communications Commission and in Congress, where the potential impact on the public of the new technology is being considered.
TCI's cable system in Washington has no open channels. "A requirement that we carry all digital service provided by all broadcasters would mean that we would have to drop 14 cable programming services that we currently provide to our D.C. customers," Mr. Hindery said.