Cablevision Adds Voom

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Cablevision Systems continues to up the ante in the race to offer consumers hundreds of high-definition channels.

The multiple-systems operator said it is now the most prolific provider of high-definition channels in the industry, following its deal last week to distribute 15 HD Networks from Voom, owned by its Rainbow Media Holdings subsidiary. But the New York-centric operator expects to have capacity for as many as 500 channels by the end of the year, easily trumping all other distributors, including DirecTV and its much-hyped 150-channel HD package.

The addition of the Voom networks now brings Cablevision's free HD package to 40 channels, more than any other cable operator offers. Time Warner offers up to 27 HD channels, while Comcast distributes 15 to 25 high-definition services.

Cox Communications offers 13 to 19 HD channels, but Cox president Pat Esser announced last week that the operator is aiming to have the capacity to offer 50 HD channels across its systems by the end of 2007, and it hopes to double that to 100 by the end of 2009.

AT&T last week touted that it is offering access to more than 30 national HD channels through its Homezone service, available across the telco's 13-state broadband footprint.

Cablevision spokesman Jim Maiella acknowledged that to deliver as many as 500 HD channels, the operator will employ switched digital video technology. But he declined to say whether the 15 Voom channels in particular will be switched or not.

Cablevision's 500-channel HD play is a clear response to broadcast satellite giant DirecTV's claims of a 150-channel HD package. DirecTV has been very aggressive in touting its HD plans, which would provide more than three times the HD capacity of most cable operators.

DirecTV director of public relations Robert Mercer said in a prepared statement that the satellite distributor has “clearly incited a rash of HD envy among the cable providers. Nonetheless, viewers don't watch capacity, they watch channels, and we have an industry-leading lineup of the best HD programming locked and loaded for broadcast to our customers beginning in September.”

Cablevision is also the most-exposed operator to competition from Verizon's FiOS TV.

Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst of Leichtman Research Group, said Cablevision's 500-HD-channel announcement is more directed at Wall Street than Main Street.

“They're trying to show to Wall Street that they don't have to go through a major upgrade to offer multiple HD channels,” he said. “It's not about 500 channels for consumers, but about 500 channels for 10 people on Wall Street.”

Cablevision will launch the Voom HD Networks to its iO: Interactive Optimum digital customers on June 26. According to the cable operator, it has deployed more than 1 million HD set-top boxes to customers, and it had 734,000 HD customers as of March 31 — an 85% increase in HD customers over the previous year.

Voom — which offers such channels as HD News, Monsters HD (horror movies), Rush HD (adventure sports), WorldSport HD (live sports coverage from around the world), Family Room HD (family-friendly movies, series and specials), Kung Fu HD (martial arts) and World Cinema HD (award-winning movies from around the globe) — is available on EchoStar Communications' Dish Network HD offering. But Cablevision is thus far the only cable operator offering the HD service.

Voom, the brainchild of Cablevision founder and chairman Charles Dolan, was the source of some friction between Dolan and his son, Cablevision CEO James Dolan, in 2005. After a contentious battle, the Dolans agreed to sell Voom's satellite to EchoStar that year and to sell the programming to cable and satellite operators.

It took two more years for Cablevision to agree to distribute the channels. Rainbow CEO Josh Sapan said increased industry focus on HD, brought in part by DirecTV's aggressive move into the space, has created increased value and attractiveness for VOOM.

“The time for HD is now and Cablevision is focused on HD,” Sapan said. “It seems that HD is either at the tipping point or gone over the tipping point in terms of being meaningful from a consumer point of view and therefore from an industry point of view.”

Mike Farrell contributed to this story.

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