Most cable operators across the country have been slow to
adopt high-definition television, with only two major MSOs -- Cablevision Systems Corp.
and Time Warner Cable -- offering limited amounts of HDTV programming in a fraction of
There hasn't been much public outcry over the matter,
however, given the fact that television manufacturers shipped only 110,657 HDTV-ready
digital-television sets to dealers from their market introduction in August 1998 through
A spokesman for national consumer-electronics retailer
Circuit City Stores Inc. admitted that HDTV sales have been limited to date.
"It's an education time for consumers,"
Circuit City manager of communications Morgan Stewart said, "particularly as so many
markets don't have any digital broadcasting yet," and digital programming is
still limited even in the markets where it is available. Morgan added that
digital-television pricing continues to be an issue for consumers.
Home Box Office, the only national cable programmer to
launch a consumer HDTV feed last year, has signed only four HDTV affiliates to date --
Cablevision, Time Warner, DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. -- according to
an HBO spokesman. He added that other operators have expressed interest in the service,
and some have begun market tests.
In addition to offering HBO's HDTV feed on Long
Island, N.Y., Cablevision also offers New Jersey Devils and Nets and New York Knicks,
Rangers, Yankees and Mets games in HDTV to its New York-area customers in areas where the
cable plant has been upgraded for digital.
Time Warner offers CBS Corp. and Fox programming in HDTV
wherever one of the networks' owned-and-operated stations has begun delivering the
HBO rival Showtime Networks Inc. is expected to announce
details of its HDTV launch early this year. SNI has said that it will deliver an HDTV feed
of Showtime's primary East Coast and West Coast channels in the 1080i (interlace)
picture format, with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.
Starz Encore Media Group LLC chairman John Sie seemed
almost gratified at the public's failure to embrace HDTV quickly. Sie has long
predicted that television viewers would be slow to migrate to the wide-screen-aspect ratio
found on many digital-television sets -- a view he restated recently during a press
conference at last month's Western Show in Los Angeles.
While HDTV didn't come close to reaching the 1
million-unit sales mark in its introductory year the way direct-broadcast satellite did,
for example, there has been some momentum building in the category. According to the
Consumer Electronics Association, digital-television unit sales were up 67 percent for the
fourth quarter of 1999 over the third quarter, even with December figures not yet counted.
"DTV sales have taken off this quarter, pushing sales
levels ahead of our projections," CEA president Gary Shapiro said. "There is no
question that the future of television is digital."
There are still questions as to how soon that future will
arrive, at least for cable customers. One cable operator expressed concerns over digital
copy-protection standards, which have yet to be resolved between the cable and
television-manufacturer industries (see Broadband Week, page 27), as well as digital
Until the Federal Communications Commission determines
whether cable companies must carry every digital-broadcast station in a given market, some
operators don't want to add other HDTV programming that they might not have room for
With their close ties to consumer-electronics retailers and
manufacturers, DBS companies seem to be embracing HDTV more quickly than cable. DirecTV
and EchoStar each plan to show new HDTV-capable equipment at this week's Consumer
Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Late last month, Zenith Electronics Corp. announced that it
would enter the U.S. DBS category next fall with an HDTV-ready satellite receiver for
DirecTV subscribers. Hughes Network Systems is also expected to announce its plans for a
DirecTV-compatible, HDTV-ready receiver at the CES.
The two companies followed announcements for
DirecTV-capable high-definition televisions or set-top boxes from the following companies:
Thomson Consumer Electronics, Mitsubishi Digital Electronics America Inc., Toshiba America
Consumer Products and Hitachi Ltd.
In addition to offering HBO's HDTV feed, DirecTV
currently offers a limited number of pay-per-view movies in HDTV. EchoStar is expected to
announce additional HDTV programming at the CES.
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