U.S. Satellite Broadcasting said last week that it will
offer its subscribers a high-definition television feed from Home Box Office as soon as
it's available early next year.
According to Stanley E. Hubbard, president and CEO of USSB,
the direct-broadcast satellite provider has leased one transponder from DirecTv Inc. at 95
degrees west longitude. Hubbard would not disclose terms of the lease.
DirecTv is a tenant of PanAmSat Corp. on the Galaxy III-R
bird at 95 degrees. Both Digital Satellite System providers will use the new
fixed-satellite orbital location to provide a new platform from which to deliver HDTV
DSS subscribers would need larger, elliptical dishes to
receive the HDTV signals from DirecTv and USSB, as well as new, HDTV-compatible DBS
receivers. Some companies, including Thomson Consumer Electronics, have agreed to build
the new DSS-II receivers directly into their HDTV sets.
Starting later this year, USSB and DirecTv will deliver a
joint promotional feed to send HDTV signals for display in retail showrooms. USSB will
deliver a consumer HBO HDTV feed as soon as HBO makes it available -- likely late next
winter or early the following spring.
Hubbard said there's no question that USSB stands to
gain some incremental subscribers once it launches an HDTV feed. But USSB's main
purpose, he added, is to work with DirecTv to "continue to lead in the introduction
of all digital television," including HDTV.
In January, DirecTv announced that it will devote channel
capacity to HDTV pay-per-view programming.
USSB has not yet announced its pricing structure for the
new HBO feed. "It's possible that we won't charge extra at all,"
HBO has said that it won't charge its distributors
extra to deliver an HDTV feed as long as they don't ask for any more from their
Bob Zitter, senior vice president of technology operations
at HBO, said any HBO distributor will be allowed to add the new HDTV feed the same way
that they can deliver any of its other multiplex feeds.
Zitter said a number of other cable and DBS affiliates have
indicated that they intend to carry HBO's HDTV feed.
On the DBS side, EchoStar Communications Corp. is already
running HBO high-definition test tapes over satellite, and PrimeStar Inc. displayed a
high-definition HBO signal at its booth at the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications
Association trade show in July.
HBO has no plans to multiplex an HDTV feed, Zitter said.
USSB has not yet said whether it will lease other HDTV
transponder space to add other premium-movie services. Showtime Networks Inc. is expected
to announce its plans for HDTV sometime soon, but it declined to say any more last week.
DirecTv carries Starz! and Encore for the mainstream DSS
platform. John Sie, chairman and CEO of Encore Media Group, said he has no plans to
deliver an HDTV feed in a wide-screen, 16-by-9 format, as opposed to the 4-by-3 ratio used
"I have a fundamental problem with 16-by-9," he
Instead, Encore will work to improve the resolution of its
picture and to allow new digital TVs to upconvert the signals even further.
"We'll deliver a 4-by-3 aspect ratio,
high-resolution television picture with 5.1-channel digital surround sound that will knock
people's socks off," Sie said.
Encore plans to offer movies in Dolby Digital surround
sound starting in November, Sie added.
Although it won't have the capability to do so at its
launch early next year, HBO plans to copy-protect its HDTV signals as soon as a standard
is developed and the compatible hardware is introduced, Zitter said.
The copy-protection system would allow HBO subscribers to
tape HDTV programming once for their own time-shifting purposes, but it would prevent
potential pirates from making multiple copies.