NCTA Themes: HDTV, Then More HDTV

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Cable operators and programmers banged the drum for HDTV long and loud last week at their annual convention here.

With a first-of-its-kind HDTV pavilion on the National Show exhibit floor — and with Comcast Corp. arranging for FCC chairman Michael Powell to throw the switch for an HDTV launch in its Chicago cable system — the National Cable & Telecommunications Association made sure the message got through loud and clear: Cable has embraced HDTV.

"It's the centerpiece of the show," Cable Television Laboratories Inc. president Richard Green declared of the HDTV Pavilion that CableLabs helped the NCTA assemble.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts put it this way: "There has been a huge mind shift in the cable industry in the last 24 months. This is a huge opportunity for cable."

Comcast had launched HDTV in 17 markets and is shipping 2,500 HD set-tops a week, Roberts said. Its Philadelphia cluster alone has 50,000 HDTV subscribers, he said.

Overall, the cable industry has launched HDTV in 78 of the top 100 markets, according to NCTA president Robert Sachs. That includes 190 retransmissions of broadcast-TV station HDTV signals.

"Half the homes served by cable now offer HD," Sachs said. He also warned that the NCTA wouldn't be held responsible for purchases made at Best Buy or Circuit City by attendees who get hooked touring the National Show's HDTV pavilion.

Powell congratulated cable on its HDTV progress so far.

"There will come a moment, and it's not too far away, when it [HDTV penetration] will tip up," he said. But he urged cable to keep going.

"We need to stop the food fight on HDTV. Cable needs to be a leader in the digital transition."

Programmers also beat the drum. "The application that will sell digital TV receivers will be HDTV," Viacom Inc. COO Mel Karmazin said during a general session, adding that Viacom's CBS network will again carry its primetime fall lineup in HD.

All the major programmers who appeared at general sessions have launched HDTV services.

"We have to make the investment in advance of the takeup," said John Hendricks, chairman and CEO of Discovery Communications Inc.

HDTV is expensive for programmers, which is why Hendricks is taking the "best of" from five networks for Discovery's single HDTV channel, Discovery HD Theater. But "ultimately, everyone will have HDTV in 10 to 12 years," Hendricks said.

"Movies and sports are going to drive it," said Showtime Networks Inc. chairman and CEO Matt Blank, who announced an increased commitment to HD.

But he cautioned: "I'm not sure there is a compelling reason for the Food Network to go HD so you can see the fat in the hamburger. HD is a bit of a bandwidth hog. I'm not sure everybody should be racing to the starting gate here."

Privately, other programmers said the cost of HDTV production and the still-small number of sets out there, without a clear revenue stream, makes it difficult to make the high-definition leap.

One HD holdout, Starz Encore Group LLC, joined the party — but with visible reluctance.

Starz Encore chairman John Sie said his company would offer cable operators two options: East and West Coast feeds in both 1080i HDTV and "high-resolution" formats.

Sie contended the average consumer wouldn't see much difference between the two signals, even with an HDTV set. He staged side-by-side displays at Starz's convention booth to support his point.

The lower-resolution feeds use one-third the bandwidth of a typical HDTV signal, he said. "Less filling, great taste," said Sie. "I'm calling for a big movement towards spectrum efficiency."

Elsewhere, NBC Cable's Bravo said it plans to launch a HDTV service this summer and A&E Network showcased some HD product in the HD Pavilion.

Time Warner Cable announced it would launch an HDTV tier that includes Discovery HD Theater and some regional Fox Sports Net services at no charge to HDTV subscribers. It's also going to offer In Demand's two HD channels this fall, on a paid, à la carte basis.

The Fox Sports Net affiliates will be launched in seven Time Warner divisions. FSN plans to launch local coverage of Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.

In Demand's two HD channels will be filled with movies, professional sports, college football and general-interest fare.

Cablevision Systems Corp. announced it would offer HDTV programming on its iO: Interactive Optimum digital platform this fall. Cablevision president Tom Rutledge told attendees at the closing session of the National Show that his MSO would offer a la carte VOD movies in HDTV.

On the exhibit floor, major set-top vendors showed off HD set-tops, including combined digital video recording and HDTV devices from Motorola Inc., Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and Pioneer Electronics Inc.

S-A said its Explorer 3270HD set-top would be the retail unit that operators can ship to stores.

The push to HDTV also gives other vendors something to sell. Server vendors were pitching HD enhancements to their product line, as were such transport companies as BigBand Networks Inc. and Harmonic Inc.

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