Cable Labs stymies broadcasters

Louisville-based Cable Television Laboratories, Inc. is enabling cable TV operators to make what one analyst calls “an end run” around local broadcasters by developing new set-top boxes that will let viewers watch programs broadcast by local TV stations, as well as their usual cable TV programs.

Cable Labs, a research group supported by the nation’s cable companies, says the new boxes will let consumers tune in local broadcast channels currently not provided by their local cable company.

Sounds reasonable enough. But the Boston Globe newspaper reported yesterday that the move actually looks like a negotiating ploy to give cable companies more leverage with local broadcasters, who increasingly want to be paid by cable operators that carry their channels.

It’s a contentious issue because even though those signals are provided free to over-the-air viewers, cable companies are profiting by re-selling the signals as part of their services.

The boxes — which could go into production as soon as this year — should make it harder for local broadcasters to cut off signals to cable operators, as Baltimore’s Sinclair Broadcast Group threatened to do in several markets before this year’s Super Bowl game. The dispute was settled for undisclosed terms two days before the game.

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