DirecTV's HD Net Hits Launching Pad

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DirecTV Inc.'s long-expected new high-definition sports channel — backed by former Internet mogul Mark Cuban — will debut this week, sources said.

The service, called HDNet, is slated to debut Thursday (Sept. 6) with the telecast of a Minnesota Twins-Texas Rangers Major League Baseball game. More than 12 baseball games are expected to follow before the end of the season.

The network will also feature select National Hockey League games, as well as qualifying events for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Between sporting events, the full-time network will round out its lineup with concerts, documentaries and other entertainment programming.

Multichannel News
first reported the DirecTV-Cuban plan in January.

Because Cuban (who founded Internet-streaming company Broadcast.com, now part of Yahoo! Inc.) owns the National Basketball Association's Dallas Mavericks, it's expected that NBA games may be added to the HDNet lineup later in the year.

Sports consultant Neal Pilson called HDTV "a wonderful way to present sports," but said the high-definition rollout has come more slowly than some in the sports community had hoped.

"I'm not sure that as good as it is, it's going to survive," Pilson said, especially given that most cable operators don't offer much in the way of HDTV.

One notable exception is Cablevision Systems Corp. and its regional sports-programming outlet Madison Square Garden Network, which began offering New York Rangers hockey games in HD in 1998, followed in 1999 by baseball's New York Yankees. Cablevision also transmits New York Mets, New Jersey Nets and New Jersey Devils games in HD through Fox Sports Net New York.

CNN/Sports Illustrated is talking with the U.S. Lacrosse Team about providing high-definition coverage of its games to DirecTV subscribers this fall.

Broadcast network CBS has produced a number of high-profile sporting events in HD. And last month, superstation WGN-TV showed a Chicago Cubs game in HD to direct-broadcast satellite subscribers with HD-ready equipment.

"There was great reaction from the videophile community" to the Cubs telecast, said WGN-TV general manager John Vitanovec. "We heard from owners of HDTVs in Chicago and across the country about how happy they were that WGN-TV had made the investment, if only for just one game, to produce a game in true high-definition, which is 1080i."

Vitanovec said the company looks forward to the day when cable operators open their full bandwidth to WGN's digital channel.

The driving force behind much of the recent HD programming efforts is the attempt to sell more high-end television sets, said Kagan Associates sports analyst John Mansell.

"We'll know how well [HDTV programming] does depending on how many more television sets get sold," Mansell said.

Sports can help drive TV sales, Mansell said.

"It's getting close to the point where if you're really a sports fan, you'll consider getting it, if just for bragging rights," he said. "The perception of the programmers, retailers and distributors — like DirecTV — is that sports will be a driver."

HDNet will replace the high-definition demo channel on the DirecTV lineup. DirecTV also carries Home Box Office and select pay-per-view movies in the HDTV format.

EchoStar Communications Corp.'s Dish Network carries HBO, Showtime and CBS in HDTV, as well as select PPV movies.

DirecTV's HDTV signals are broadcast from the 119 degrees west longitude orbital location, apart from the company's core programming slots at 101 degrees.

Ironically, EchoStar transmits its core programming at 119 degrees, but broadcasts its HDTV feeds from other orbital locations.

In recent weeks, EchoStar chairman Charlie Ergen has argued that a merger between EchoStar and DirecTV would eliminate the wasted bandwidth that occurs when the competitors send the same signals from different satellites.

Even without a merger deal, the companies could work out some form of spectrum-sharing arrangement, in which at least some signals, such as HD, could be sent to both services' subscribers from a single satellite. At the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association conference last month, Ergen said such a deal becomes harder to consummate the longer the separate companies continue to deploy their own proprietary receivers.

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