Cable moves HDTV promotion to high gear

HDTV may have been invented as a way to jump-start the next generation of over-the-air broadcasting, but it’s cable operators that are moving quickest to get it into America’s living rooms.

“There’s been a big shift (in cable) to try and push this transition (from analog TV to digital and HDTV) as quickly and as seamlessly as possible,” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said at the cable industry convention last month in Chicago. “We're halfway there, and we have to keep on going to get to the other side.”

The growth has been slow but steady. Cable systems now offer HD programming to subscribers in nearly 80 markets, but the subscriber base is still small since there are only about two million homes with HDTV sets. About three percent of cable customers have said that they are “very likely” to spend more than $1,000 for an HDTV set in the next 12 months, according to a recent Leichtman Research Group survey of 1,250 households.

More than 5.8 million TV sets that are capable of receiving a digital signal have been sold to dealers, while an additional three million are projected to be shipped to dealers by the end of 2003, said the Consumer Electronics Association (CES). Most of those sets, however, are used to watch conventional television and DVD players; fewer than one million high-definition set-top converter boxes are in the 106 million homes that have TV.

Fox's decision to embrace HDTV will help overcome the shortage of programming that has prevented high-definition digital television from being more widely used, said CES head Gary Shapiro. “This is another ‘tipping point’ to help reach the inevitable widespread adoption of HDTV.”

Broadcasters, who remain the odd-man-out in the HDTV sweepstakes, contend their upgrade to digital television and HDTV will be unsuccessful unless they gain multi-channel digital carriage on cable systems. Cable operators have countered that a digital must-carry rule would force them to give up so much spectrum that they'd have to abandon worthwhile services, such as C-SPAN, to accommodate broadcasters.

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