Asleep at the wheel

My e-mail has recently been filled with press releases describing the growth of HDTV in the USA. Research shows that cable subscribers in 78 of the top 100 U.S. markets, including 18 of the top 20, have access to an HDTV service.

Plus, 34 markets beyond the top 100 markets also are served via cable with HD signals. This means that 55 million U.S. households already have access to cable-delivered HD signals. And, that doesn't include the markets served by terrestrial broadcast HD signals. There has been a 50 percent growth in HD over cable just since January.

There are currently eight U.S.-based HD networks: Comcast Sports Net, Discovery HD Theater, ESPN HD, HBO, Hdnet, InDemand, Madison Square Garden Network and Showtime. In addition, the networks A&E, Bravo and Cinemax have announced plans to begin offering HD programming this year. By year's end, there could be 11 cable networks offering HD programming. Now add ABC, CBS and PBS (but not FOX, because it can't even spell HDTV), and you have plenty of HD to watch in America.

So, if we have the HD programming, do we have the viewers?

Yes, and the numbers are growing. The Consumer Electronics Association says 2.5 million HDTV sets will be sold in the USA this year. By 2006, that jumps to 10.5 million sets. The Discovery Channel predicts that 20 million will shift to HDTV within five years and that 70 percent of American homes will have HDTV capability in 10 years.

Why the sudden growth?

That's the easy part. Cable and satellite have both discovered that HD generates new revenue. Satellite providers DirecTV and Echo Star offer packages of HD that require an additional subscription fee of about E10/mo. Cable systems are following the same trend by developing HD packages and then charging E10 for the service.

NBC cable claims that the desire for HD programming is so hot that the network is considering offering HD programs on a Pay Per View (PPV) basis. The upcoming Olympic broadcasts may even be offered in HD on PPV.

Now let's look at Europe.

Here is a group of nations that, as a whole, has not embraced HD for transmission. It's apparently okay to produce in HD, but don't bother worrying about delivery to home viewers because viewers won't care about, let alone pay for, HD.

Sorry guys. That's short-sighted. If broadcasters think European viewers will be content with 625-like digital video, they are wrong. Once TV viewers see HD images, they want it.

It's time the DVB community recognize and embrace the importance of delivering HD to home viewers. Otherwise, consumers and governments alike are going to wonder who was “asleep at the wheel” when it came to implementing HDTV.

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