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Broadcast and Cable lobbies engage in HDTV stat war

PBS's NOVA science series was shown in HD this month. Other major networks — including CBS, ABC and NBC — are also delivering some primetime and special HD events as well, but not around the clock, and often from stations that are difficult to receive by home viewers.

The on-going debate between the NCTA and the NAB over which industry offers more high-definition television programming played out last week in a new public relations war. Figures provided by both sides have been called into question as the satellite direct-to-home providers, which currently offer more than both, kept quiet.

The cable television industry has embraced HDTV in a big way, with 2003 expected to bring a boom in new programming in the HDTV format. Prior to packing their bags for CES, cable industry executives issued a press release stating it has launched high-definition television service on cable systems serving approximately one-third of U.S. television households in more than 90 markets across the country.

HDTV service is now being provided by at least one cable operator in 62 of the top 100 designated market areas (DMAs), according to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA). The total number of all DMAs with HDTV carriage by one or more cable systems — including markets beyond the top 100 DMAs — is 91. The total number of homes passed by cable systems providing HDTV channel packages is approximately 37 million, or one in three TV households in the U.S., the NCTA said.

Of course, the variety of HD programs varies widely from market to market, and those numbers make it sound like much more HDTV is available than there actually is. So much so that retailers of HD sets normally rely on the far steadier stream of direct-to-home satellite content (e.g., HDNet on DirecTV) than programming from either cable or broadcasters.

This is all expected to change in 2003 as major portions of HBO and Showtime's programming moves to HD on many more cable systems. Discovery HD Theater, launched last summer, is also available. And ESPN is set to launch its all-HD sports channel with the start of the Major League Baseball season on March 30.

On the broadcast side, the major networks — including CBS, ABC, NBC and PBS —are delivering some primetime and special HD events as well, but not around the clock, and often from stations that are difficult to receive by home viewers.

All this cable backslapping was too much for the NAB, the broadcaster lobby that has a lot of catching up to do to explain why its members have virtually missed any serious opportunity to become primary providers of HD programming.

In what it calls the “rest of the story,” the NAB points out that in most of the 90 markets cited by the cable industry, only a cable network such as HBO or the Discovery Channel provides programming. The implication, of course, is that cable’s HD content is somehow inferior to that being transmitted by broadcasters.

Even “more telling,” says the NAB, is that over-the-air TV is “free” while cable is not. “No amount of rosy NCTA spin changes the fact that the cable industry is still using its gatekeeper clout to deny most Americans access to over-the-air digital and high-definition television programming,” said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.

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