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HDTV said to be 'big winner' for cable in immediate future

Mon, 01/13/2003 - 7:00pm
Staff

Copyright 2003 Warren Publishing, Inc.

Warren's Cable Regulation Monitor...01/13/2003

Lexis Nexis

Las Vegas—Cable's sudden realization of importance of HDTV to customer retention "was a real head knocker," Cox Cable CEO James Robbins said at Consumer Electronics Show (CES) here Jan. 9. "We realized that was where our best customers were going, and we weren't there."

Representatives of most major cable MSOs were present at news conference here touting cable's movement toward HDTV, and "that is a real watershed," Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said: "This is a changing time." NCTA recently said HDTV was available to more than 1/3 of its subscribers. "I think HDTV is the big winner in the years ahead," Roberts said.

Only very small percentage of cable customers currently subscribe to HDTV services. Most cable officials refuse to disclose exact numbers, but best estimate is that only few hundred thousand HDTV-capable set-tops are even in market. Time Warner Cable (TWC) CEO Glenn Britt provided only hard numbers, saying MSO had 76,000 HDTV customers. TWC gives customers HDTV service, including upgraded set-top, at no additional cost, Britt said, "because we think it is a great retention tool against satellite."

Actual current number of cable HDTV customers isn't important, Roberts said in response to question: "The question is what you see coming. These are our best customers, and now is the time. It's better to be a year early than 2 years late. We want to make it happen. This is an opportunity to change the TV experience."

Cable industry is adding HDTV availability to its Go2Broadband online data base in order to boost HDTV, CableLabs announced. Database originally was established to give consumers definite information about availability of cable modem services. Kiosks to access database are to be established at HDTV retail sites.

Most of HDTV programming available to cable customers continues to be cable channels, officials acknowledged here, but NCTA Pres. Robert Sachs said more than half of systems offering HDTV also provided broadcast HDTV. Saying cable HDTV channels typically broadcast full time in HDTV, while many broadcasters were only part-time HDTV, Sachs said: "It's only natural to offer cable networks that are full time before those that are part-time." He said, however, that "hundreds" of discussions about broadcast HDTV carriage agreements were under way.

Services such as Go2Broadband are part of major shift by cable operators toward retail, Roberts said. He said shift started with retail sales of cable modems and is likely to continue as cable operators offer telephony and other services.

Meanwhile, EchoStar is making its own bid to expand market for high-definition programming as it considers packaging 36" HD-ready monitor with new personal video recorder that ships in 2nd quarter, it said at CES Jan. 9. Pricing hasn't been set for either DishPVR921 or TV, but latter is likely to be among cheapest on market. Unclear was whether EchoStar would be subsidizing cost of TV. Current 36" HD-ready monitors are $1,000–$2,000 and low end of HD-ready category this year is expected to be around $600 for Apex set. "If we do the TV product, we don't have to make a profit on it," EchoStar Senior Technologies Vp Mark Jackson said. Introduction of TV would be coupled with line of low-cost HD decoder/satellite receivers that EchoStar expects to offer by midyear. Company declined comment on pricing, but current DirecTV/HD decoder product falls in $600–$800 range. Low end of standalone HD decoder set-top box market is anchored by Zenith at $399.

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