Comcast Plans Wider Rollout for HDTV

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Comcast Corp. said last week it would bring high-definition television to at least some systems within all its major markets by the end of this year.

The MSO began deploying HDTV in the Philadelphia DMA last fall, featuring a mix of local digital-broadcast channels and such premium movie services as Home Box Office and Showtime in the HD format.

Comcast plans to offer HDTV to its Northern Virginia customers this summer and in Maryland, Detroit and Indianapolis later in the year. Next year, the MSO will bring HDTV to Washington, D.C., following a system upgrade there.

"One reason we're so excited about this announcement is the positive reaction we've seen in the Philadelphia market," Comcast executive vice president of sales, marketing and customer service Dave Watson said. Comcast quickly ran out of the sidecar boxes that customers needed to pull in the high-definition signals.

Comcast wants to offer a one-box solution — using HD-ready set-top boxes from Motorola Inc. and Scientific-Atlanta Inc. — when it deploys HD in new markets, Watson said.

The company is also evaluating its pricing model. In Philadelphia, access to HD content costs $10.95 per month, on top of digital cable and the cost of the sidecar rental.

Starting next year, Comcast SportsNet will offer HD programming in the Philadelphia and Washington markets. The MSO plans to make more than 200 professional basketball, baseball and hockey games available in HD every year.

That could give the operator a competitive edge over direct-broadcast satellite providers DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp., which do not have rights to Comcast regional sports programming.

EchoStar said it plans to broadcast about 12 HDTV channels if its proposed merger with DirecTV parent Hughes Electronics Corp. is approved and finalized. But unlike cable, it is unlikely that DBS companies will carry local broadcast stations in HD, at least in the foreseeable future.

Between the two companies, DBS currently broadcasts HD feeds of HBO, Showtime, HD Net, CBS and a limited run of pay-per-view movies.

In a recent Charlie Chat, EchoStar chairman Charlie Ergen said the merged company would also look at possible HD programming from Starz Encore Group, Discovery Channel, PBS and other national broadcast networks, if they were to make such HD feeds available.

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Comcast is excited to be working with Thomson Multimedia and other consumer electronics manufacturers on joint promotions offering customers HDTV sets and digital cable packages that include HD content, Watson said.

When Comcast first launched HDTV in the Philadelphia DMA, the company received inquiries from retailers eager to work with the MSO to promote HDTV, he said.

Watson said that retailers believe the HDTV transition is easier for cable consumers since they need only to purchase an HDTV set. DBS customers would need an additional satellite receiver to bring in HD signals.

Among top MSOs, Time Warner Cable has been the most active on the HD front to date. Cablevision Systems Corp., Charter Communications and Cox Communications have also deployed HD on a limited basis. Cablevision has also promoted HDTV through its retail chain, The Wiz.

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