HDTV's on the Rise


The migration towards HDTV picked up steam last week, as several cable networks, content providers, operators and direct-broadcast satellite companies announced new wrinkles last week, ahead of this week's National Show in Chicago.

Top MSO Comcast Corp., No. 1 DBS provider DirecTV Inc. and overbuilder RCN Corp. all announced major rollouts of HD programming tiers featuring programming from such networks as ESPN, Discovery Channel and local broadcast stations.

On the content front, pay-per-view event and movie provider In Demand will switch gears and provide operators with two nontransactional HD diginets in the next few months.

And DirecTV will expand its current HD sports and movie offerings next month, with the launch of a new subscription-based HD-programming package in July.

The package — which will retail for $10.99 per month — will include such networks as ESPN HD, Discovery HD Theater, HDNet and HD Net Movies, DirecTV senior vice president of programming Stephanie Campbell said.

In addition, DirecTV will feature HD special events and select NBA TV programming, including live National Basketball Association games.

DirecTV executives said the new offerings will complement its premium HD offerings from Showtime and Home Box Office, as well as HD telecasts of National Football League games through its "NFL Sunday Ticket" out-of-market pay-per-view package.

The distributor is hoping the added content deals will help expand its HD subscriber base, which currently sits at 180,000 customers. Most DirecTV subscribers will have to buy a DirecTV HD converter as well as install a slightly larger dish to access the HD channels.

"DirecTV has been a passionate proponent of HDTV since it launched the first coast-to-coast HD-feed more than four years ago," Campbell said. "The launch of this HD package reinforces DirecTV's commitment to the category and to offering our customers the best-quality high-definition programming."

Elsewhere, Comcast Corp. expanded its menu of HDTV offerings in the San Francisco area last week, providing feeds from Home Box Office and Showtime, plus the local ABC, NBC and PBS stations.

The MSO is making HDTV content available to 800,000 cable homes in 64 cities throughout the area, extending south to San Jose, east to Oakland and north into Marin County, said network officials. It already offers HDTV in greater Sacramento (250,000 homes) and in Southern California (500,000 homes), including parts of Los Angeles.

In an effort to provide HD programming to subscribers, Comcast said it would rent HDTV tuners for $5 per month. The No. 1 U.S. MSO initially launched HDTV in late 2001, in Philadelphia.

Also last week, RCN Corp. said it recently launched HDTV service in Boston and Manhattan, while adding coverage in its Washington, D.C., and Lehigh Valley, Pa., territories.

At launch, RCN HDTV will offer HD feeds from local affiliates of ABC, NBC, Fox and PBS. HBO HD and Showtime HD are available to subscribers of those premium networks.

RCN's premium HD tier includes ESPN HD, HDNet, HDNet Movies and Discovery HD Theater.

More nets' content

As distributors step up the pace of HDTV technology, more and more content providers are offering programming within the HD format. PPV purveyor In Demand — which provides video-on-demand movie studio content to most of the cable industry — is now positioning itself to become a major player in the HDTV arena, with the launch of two HD networks this September.

To program the networks, In Demand last week reached a distribution deal with Crown Media Distribution LLC to provide programming from Hallmark Entertainment, In Demand CEO Rob Jacobson said. HD programming available to In Demand includes such movies as Lonesome Dove, Mark Twain's Roughing It, Captain Courageous and A Promise Kept: The Oksana Baul Story.
The deal dovetails on a similar content deal with College Sports Television, which will offer regular-season and postseason lacrosse games, as well as baseball, wrestling, volleyball, gymnastics, soccer, track and field, golf, tennis and swimming events.

In Demand is also in negotiations with other cable networks, Hollywood studios and professional sports leagues in an effort to secure more programming for the 24-hour services.

Jacobson said the network created the two channels to meet operator demand for HD programming. Unlike other upstart digital basic services, Jacobson said the network would charge a license fee, although he would not disclose the rate card.

"We have significant costs to recoup," Jacobson said. "These high-def channels are really expensive to start-up, and while we think we can do it in a manner that's more cost-effective than anybody else, it's still going to cost money."

Owners lined up

The network has yet to reach an affiliation deal, but Jacobson said he expects In Demand owners Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and Comcast Cable to eventually launch the networks in each MSO's respective HD-enabled systems.

To provide additional value to operators, Jacobson said In Demand will allow its second HD channel to be preempted to give operators the opportunity to offer programming more geared to their region.

"It will be more of a pre-emptible model, where the cable operator could transmit local programming, like a high-definition [telecast] from its regional sports network, right into that channel," he said. "Operators will have a place to put it without setting side an incremental channel."

Also on the content front, Starz Encore Group LLC's Starz premium service plans to launch two HDTV feeds by year's end, along with two high resolution feeds of Starz, said network executives.

The high-resolution feeds consume one-third the bandwidth of a HD feed, and Starz executives contend consumers will be hard pressed to see the difference between the two sets of feeds on most TV sets.

Starz will also launch a Sharper Movies HD channel, designed for cable operators' basic HDTV tiers, which will include the best movies from Starz SuperPak in full HD.