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Dish to Expand HD Roster, Offer 1080p Movies

Dish Network traded the latest body blow with satellite competitor DirecTV and its cable foes by announcing Thursday that it will deliver 150 national channels of HD programming by year-end and that on Friday, it will also begin offering HD on-demand movies in the 1080-line-progressive format used in Blu-ray discs, with Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend as the first title.

The 150-channel announcement came less than one month after Dish said it would launch 17 new national HD channels Aug. 1, meeting its previously stated goal of broadcasting 100 national HD channels by year-end some five months ahead of schedule, and that it would begin selling an HD-only programming packed called “TurboHD” that starts at $24.99 per month.

It also came just three days after archrival DirecTV announced that it will launch 30 new HD channels starting in mid-August, bringing its total to 130 channels, and that it will offer 1080p movies later this year.

Dish delivered a software download to its new MPEG-4 HD digital-video-recorder set-tops that will enable them to receive HD video encoded in the 1080p/24 frames-per-second format -- the same format that Blu-ray movies are mastered in.

To promote the 1080p movie service, Dish is offering I Am Legend at the discounted price of $2.99. Normal 1080i HD VOD movies, which Dish has been providing since last February, go for $6.99. Future 1080p titles will be offered at that same $6.99 rate, Dish chief marketing officer Jessica Insalaco said, adding that Dish has deals for more 1080p movies in place but it isn’t announcing titles yet.

Dish won’t reveal what bit rate it will transmit 1080p//24 movies at; Blu-ray movies are usually encoded at bit rates ranging from 16 to 24 megabits per second.

“It’s the same standard and same format as Blu-ray disc, and it looks great,” Insalaco said.

Offering 1080p picture quality is a way for satellite operators to differentiate themselves from cable’s HD offerings and take full advantage of the new capabilities offered by the MPEG-4 transmission systems they have invested in.

Encoder manufacturers like Harmonic and Tandberg Television have said for more than one year that their MPEG-4 equipment could support the delivery of 1080p/24, and they have demonstrated the capability at trade shows like IBC and the 2008 NAB Show.

In order to take full advantage of the 1080p/24 quality, viewers will need a late-model 1080p HD set capable of displaying 24-frames-per-second pictures; other sets will convert the video to other frame rates to display it.

Whether average consumers will be able to truly appreciate the technical nuances of 1080p/24 delivery is open to debate, and Insalaco admitted that most viewers are focused more on HD quantity than quality. But she said the move to 1080p should help to make Dish’s positioning stand out versus its competitors.

“The conversation right now is all about HD, and we want to be the leader in the high-definition experience for our customers,” she added.