Satellite TV companies in heavy-duty battle - East Valley Tribune: Business

Satellite TV companies in heavy-duty battle

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Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2007 8:58 pm | Updated: 5:32 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

DirecTV added 600,000 new high-definition and/or DVR subscribers in the third quarter, while rival satellite TV provider Echostar’s Dish Network welcomed 111,000 new subscribers. Some of that growth may have come out of cable giant Comcast’s hide; it had a net loss of 65,000 subscribers in the same period.

Clearly, the satellite folks’ heavy push on high-def content is starting to pay off for them, as more and more people buy HDTVs and begin to realize that having one doesn’t mean everything watched on it is automatically in high-def.

ON THE MENU: DirecTV more than met its promise to deliver 70 channels in true HD by the end of October, though that included the seven pay-per-view HD channels always available to subscribers.

Add the sometimes there, sometimes not premium sports channels dedicated to NBA, NFL and NHL league play, and the regional HD sports channels that often duplicate each other, and the number soars to 90.

Ultimately, DirecTV is promising 150 national HD channels.

For its part, Echostar now has more than 50 full-time HD channels on its Dish Network, including a bunch of exclusives (from former satellite TV rival VOOM) that are among the best-looking HD channels out there.

Specialty services like RAVE (contemporary music), Equator (world travel) and Ultra (fashion) do not partake in the trickery of “upconverting” standard-definition content, which is done on some recently launched HD versions of news, sports and basic entertainment channels. If you count Dish’s packages of sports leagues and locals, its total HD channel count climbs into the 70s.

Cable- and phone company-delivered (fiber optic) TV services are now delivering around 25 to 30 HD channels, at best. Still, operations like Comcast tout in advertisements that they deliver the most “choices.”

How so?

Because Comcast also offers more than 100 hours of HD video programming on demand.

Uh, sorry, but an episode of the “Sopranos” in HD does not qualify as a “channel” in my book.

To make room for more HD, cable companies have already begun to shift channels from the (bandwidth-hogging) analog domain to a more efficient digital tier, requiring customers with old analog boxes to upgrade if they still want to get, say, HBO. Now the cable companies are starting to warn customers that when the nation goes to all-digital broadcasting on Feb. 17, 2009, all remaining analog TV transmissions via cable will similarly go “bye-bye.”

That means you will no longer be able to tune in basic channels by just attaching the cable to your old, “cable ready” TV. You’ll have to rent a new-generation cable box that will do the signal conversion from digital to analog—or, invest in a new-gen digital TV that can tune in non-scrambled (“in the clear”) digital channels.

Yet another option is to buy a digital TV with a slot for a digital CableCard—essentially a tuner on a card—which cable companies supply on request but do not tout. For reasons of economy and lack of demand, fewer and fewer HDTV models are being made with the CableCard slot.

PAYING THE PIPER: While looking pretty noble right now with its greatly expanded, $9.95 HDTV channel bundle, DirecTV is going to spring a little surprise on its 2-million-plus high-def customers in December.

Namely, the company will start demanding an additional $4.99 a month for the DirectTV HD Extra Pack that has some of the purest of HD channel offerings, including longtime showpiece HDNet and its sister channel HDNet Movies, plus recent additions Smithsonian HD, MGM HD and MTV’s musical mixed bag, MHD.

HDNet chief Marc Cuban is crying foul, suggesting in a lawsuit that DirecTV is moving his channels to “a newly created obscure and overpriced package that puts the HDNet channels well beyond the reach of the average television viewer.”

He’s also arguing that DirecTV is violating its existing contract with HDNet, a charge that DirecTV will “vigorously” challenge in court, said a company spokesman.

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