Charter Gets Aggressive With HDTV

Charter Communications Inc. will follow its five-market mid-May soft launch of high-definition television with an aggressive marketing campaign.

For $9.95 to $19.95 per month, depending on the system, Charter customers in those markets — Alhambra/Pasadena and Glendale/Burbank, Calif.; University Park/Highland Park, Texas; Miami Beach, Fla.; and Birmingham, Ala. — can rent an HD-capable Scientific-Atlanta Inc. box and gain access to HD programming from Home Box Office and Showtime Networks Inc.

The first five markets were selected because they use Scientific-Atlanta's digital-cable platform. Motorola Inc.'s HD-ready digital set-top won't be ready until later this year.

In addition, Charter examined the demographics in each market, selecting those with the closest parallels to early adopters of HDTV sets — largely 25- to 50-year-old male professionals with children in the house, said senior vice president of marketing and programming Diane Schneiderjohn.

Some MSOs view HDTV as a way to keep digital-cable customers from churning to direct-broadcast satellite. DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. each offer their own HD services, but subscribers who want to view HD-format programming must typically purchase new DBS equipment.


This month, each of the five Charter systems began deploying a variety of promotional tactics to help encourage subscribers to upgrade to the S-A Explorer 3100HD set-top. They included print, direct mail, bill inserts, door hangers, newspaper inserts, radio, on-hold messages and cross-channel spots.

Charter's message: HDTV's picture quality is something one must see to appreciate, said Schneiderjohn. In one bill insert, two golf enthusiasts describe their HDTV viewing experience while watching a professional golfer trying to make a putt. When one predicts he'll make the shot, the other suggests he'll hit the ant in the ball's path instead.

Charter's HDTV launch was more hard-hitting than some early rollouts by other MSOs, Schneiderjohn noted.

"This is a very aggressive launch," she said. "It shows our commitment to HDTV."

Charter's HDTV plans were in the works well before Washington earlier this year put pressure on cable operators to get behind the format, she said.

Initially, the MSO will only lease HD-ready boxes. It plans to offer a retail option through trials later this year, director of retail Steve Frank said.

In the meantime, Charter has put together an HD service kit that allows new customers to install their new digital set-top box on their own. Professional installation is also available.

Charter has talked about adding HD content from other programmers, including Discovery Networks U.S. and HDNet, the service owned by founder Mark Cuban and now available on DirecTV. The MSO is also negotiating to retransmit HD signals from over-the-air TV stations, but wants to make sure those stations have committed to a certain number of hours of HD programming before it devotes valuable bandwidth to the feeds.

In the third quarter, Charter plans to launch HD service in Kalamazoo, Mich., and St. Louis using the Motorola CDT-5100 set-top box. Schneiderjohn could not say how many Charter systems would be HD-capable by year-end.