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Nets increase HDTV output

Although most consumers still can't get it, national broadcast, cable and satellite networks are pumping out nearly 500 hours a week of sports and entertainment in HDTV.

The latest contribution comes from founder Mark Cuban. Last week, his HDNET began broadcasting via satellite (DirecTV) a 16-hour schedule of sports and entertainment each week.

With the start of the 2001-02 prime time season, ABC got into the HD game, broadcasting 15 hours a week of dramas, sitcoms and movies. CBS began its second HDTV season with about 24 hours, including a college football game each Saturday and a five-day-a-week soap, The Young and the Restless.

NBC airs The Tonight Show With Jay Leno five nights a week and an occasional movie in HD and is expected to increase output after it finishes upgrading its broadcast distribution system. PBS presents two or three HD documentaries every month.

Most of the programming continues to come from HBO and Showtime. Each of the pay networks offers 24-hour movie channels in HDTV.

But the HDTV programming is not easy to get. Most TV homes rely on cable for their television, and few cable systems carry any HDTV.

A few dozen ABC- and CBS-owned or -affiliated TV stations broadcast HDTV over their digital TV channels, but the digital signals do not propagate well, and only 150,000 homes have HD receivers able to pick up the signals.

All told, according to the National Association of Broadcasters, only 207 stations have their DTV stations up and running. The FCC requires all commercial stations to have their DTV station on air by next May, but most are not expected to make the deadline.

Cable operators are in no hurry to add bandwidth-guzzling HDTV signals of any kind to their systems. Most prefer to use their digital capacity to run as many standard-definition networks as they can.

Today, the best bet for HD-hungry consumers is satellite TV. DirecTV carries not only HDNet but also the HBO and Showtime HD feeds. EchoStar's Dish Network also carries the HBO and Showtime services.

Although the price of the HD sets with broadcast receivers continues to drop, HD proponents believe sales would improve with better in-store sales training.

"Retailers have to be more proactive in displaying and selling HDTV. That's been the real problem in my book," said Clyde Chappell, at WFAA-TV Dallas, an ABC affiliate now broadcasting the ABC HD schedule. "I go into a lot of stores, and they don't know anything about HDTV."

Because local cable systems will not carry HD signals, said Chappell, he is working with local electronics stores to set up receive antennas so that they can get the over-the-air HD broadcasts. Most sales staffs prefer to use DVD movies to sell HD displays, he said.

Initially costing thousands of dollars more, digital sets with external tuner boxes able to receive HDTV in the familiar 4:3 aspect ratio are advertised in daily newspapers these days for about $1,800. A 35-inch widescreen 16:9 HDTV with an integrated tuner can be had for about $3,000.

CBS has managed to keep down its cost of transferring film-based dramas and sitcoms to HD by negotiating sponsorships with companies like Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Samsung, and Sears, Roebuck. "There aren't enough HD receivers out at the moment so we're doing anything we can think of to stimulate that market," said CBS Television Executive Vice President Martin Franks. "We have to move HDTV from the current demonstration phase and turn it into a real business."

Samsung and Sears have committed to a full media plan of TV, print and in-store advertisements for CBS's HD college football schedule on Saturday afternoons that could reach $10 million, according to Samsung spokesman Steve Panosian.

The agreement marks the first time a retailer, broadcaster and set manufacturer have jointly promoted HDTV. It also includes resources to develop an "HDTV Game Day" promotion and employee training.

There not much local HD production to entice consumers. Two years ago, more than 100 TV stations banded together with the idea of sharing locally produced HD programs. Operated by NAPTE, the consortium hasn't produced much new in the last year or so, according to Chappell. "It gets expensive to produce HDTV shows. We're right in the middle of converting our station to full HDTV operation, so we don't have a lot of extra money laying around. We're grateful to ABC for offering the prime time lineup in HD. We think it will help sell sets."