HDTV, after all

Committed to the First Amendment

In 1997, the government handed each TV station a second hunk of spectrum, figuring the broadcasters would use it to rush out and provide America with HDTV—a new service that would be just like having a movie theater in your living room. Well, it didn't happen for a variety of well-documented reasons, most notably the broadcasters' inability to figure out how they would make any money on the service. ABC and CBS offer much of their prime time schedules in HDTV (so does Fox, if you stretch the definition of HDTV to include its lower-res version). But most of their affiliates haven't built the second stations needed to broadcast HD, and many that have are operating at power levels so low that one can conclude only that they intend not to reach viewers but merely to placate lawmakers. If you wait for broadcasters to make HDTV happen, we suspect you will still, in 2012, be watching that 26-inch RCA you bought in 1992.

Into this HD wasteland last week came cable with a promise to serve up at least five channels of HD to its big-system subscribers next year. We are not sure how many subscribers that will be, but it should be millions, and the number should grow steadily if there is actually consumer demand for the service (most think there is) and if lingering concerns about copy-protection and interoperability can be settled quickly. Some of cable's enthusiasm for HD comes from a desire to appease FCC Chairman Michael Powell. But not all. Cable operators think HD might be a good business, at least a way of driving digital set-top penetration. "HD is a wonderful product," says Glen Britt, CEO of Time Warner Cable, which is already offering HD in many of its systems. "It's something customers like. We see this as a new service like video-on-demand, home networking and multiple ISPs." In any event, cable's initiative is significant and one that every HD proponent should heartily cheer. Cable has gone from HD laggard (see this space, April 15) to HD leader.

The big question is what HD programming the cable operators will carry. As our chart on page 58 shows, they have a fairly good selection already, including broadcast and cable networks. They are free to choose whatever they want. Despite the wishful thinking of broadcasters, cable operators are under no obligation to carry broadcast HD signals. This means that, if any broadcaster wants to be a part of cable's HD package, it had better get its HD act together and do it fast. Thanks to their networks, ABC, CBS and Fox affiliates are in pretty good shape, although the low-res Fox HD might not satisfy every cable operator. On the other hand, NBC affiliates should worry about being left behind. NBC has dragged its feet, offering no regular HD programming other than The Tonight Show. Jay Leno is a funny man, but he's no match for 24 hours of HBO, Showtime and Discovery. NBC just celebrated its 75th anniversary, filled with back-patting for pushing color sets into homes. (Today, 99% have one, according to Nielsen.) It's an auspicious time for it to look to the future, and that future, we think, is HDTV.