HDTV's Key to Rainbow DBS Success

Rainbow DBS will place a heavy emphasis on HDTV and offer a slew of international and foreign-language networks, according to several sources.

While Cablevision Systems Corp. is being tight-lipped about its DBS service, chairman Charles Dolan last week claimed the offering will be broad enough to appeal to a variety of consumers, not just affluent ones.

"We will be able to provide the most comprehensive and the most compelling and the most value-driven service that is out there," Dolan said. "It's going to be at a value level that will be very competitive."

Glimpse from flyer

Last fall Cablevision, a master packager of video services, submitted a prototype brochure for its DBS service to the Federal Communications Commission.

"Since that time, we have introduced changes, and other features of the satellite have been tested and are going to be incorporated in the offering," Dolan said.

Nonetheless, that flyer provides some insight into how Cablevision is considering configuring its Rainbow DBS offering.

The brochure listed 20 HDTV services, as well as 256 national and regional networks. Rainbow DBS's satellite is capable of offering up to 468 standard-definition channels.

In the brochure, Rainbow's DBS's HD tier included some networks that don't exist yet, but which presumably might be spun off from existing Cablevision-owned networks. Those included AMC Monsters, Full Frontal Fashion and MGM Classics.

"It's going to be heavy, heavy HD programming," one industry source said.

The non-HD networks were grouped by 13 genres. For example, there was a "Doc Box" with networks like Discovery Channel and TLC, as well as a News Box, Kids Box, Movie Box, Women's Box, Shop Box and a Sports Box.

The package also offered 60 foreign-language channels from around the world. That grouping included an Arabic tier, a Chinese tier and two Spanish-language tiers.

The flyer told consumers they could choose any combination of packages or specific channels.

DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications have HDTV offerings, but Dolan is touting the availability of local HD signals through Rainbow DBS.

Local by antenna

"We are going to certainly offer the local TV stations, but we're not to do it via the local-into-local route," he said. "We think the only way to do that today is to incorporate into your rooftop dish an antenna.

"And we think finally that's what everybody is going to do, because the task of delivering all those signals via the satellite — one, it's unnecessary; and two, it's just a huge bandwidth hog."

The signals from both the satellite and antenna will seamlessly feed into a single set-top, with a second tuner for the over-the-air signals, and the TV viewer will be unaware his or her programming is coming from two sources, Dolan said.

DirecTV president Roxanne Austin maintained that using a digital rooftop antenna won't be a big advantage for Rainbow DBS.

"We can do that today," Austin said. "People can get a digital terrestrial antenna today and we have set-tops that allow people to receive the digital signal with local. That's not a new technology. I want to be able to deliver high-definition local via the satellite."

Some programmers said they welcome having another distribution platform for their services.

"I would never underestimate Chuck Dolan," said Nicole Browning, MTV Networks president of affiliate sales and marketing. "And I think he is very serious about it [Rainbow DBS].

"Chuck has done remarkable things in the industry, and as far as we're concerned, the more access to eyeballs, the better. We're sort of agnostic — cable, satellite."

Net deals needed

Several programmers said that Cablevision will have to strike carriage deals — separate from the company's MSO affiliation agreements — for the startup Rainbow DBS service. In many cases, such pacts have not yet been negotiated, networks said. HDNet chairman Mark Cuban confirmed that talks are on with Rainbow about his HDTV networks.

Or, if MSO Cablevision has an expired carriage agreement with a network, the renewal deal is being negotiated to cover cable and DBS distribution, a source said.

Dolan has enlisted, mainly on a consulting basis, a Rainbow DBS team that includes former National Geographic Channels Worldwide president Sandy McGovern, DBS veteran Mickey Alpert and Jay Aldrich. In May, Cablevision retained a marketing firm for the satellite venture, The Interpublic Group and its Lowe Group ad agency, with a $100 million account.

"Mickey is nobody's fool, and Chuck Dolan isn't very often anybody's fool, either," DBS analyst Jimmy Schaeffler said.

But spokeswomen for some major MSOs downplayed the threat Rainbow DBS may offer.

"We have a competitive environment across all of our product lines, and we compete every day for every customer on many different levels, from product features, customer service, customer convenience, ease of use and price," a Comcast Corp. spokeswoman said. "We welcome competition, because it fosters innovation."

"We take competition very seriously, and that would apply to Cablevision as it does to any other competitor," Cox said.