It’s hard to assert quality claims when viewers who think they have HD don’t

Cable operators, telcos and satellite providers are going toe-to-toe in the battle to offer more high-definition (HD) programming to their subscribers.

The number of HD channels an operator carries, and the quality of the carrier’s HD offering, has been, and still is, a bragging point between the three camps, creating somewhat of a marketing frenzy.

And the battle has caused a legal frenzy, as well. In the past year, DirecTV has settled separate lawsuits with Time Warner Cable, Comcast and Cox Communications, all dealing with HD-related advertisements.

This targeting of HD is not a shift in market or technical strategy, but a simple reprioritization in response to the market, says Imagine Senior Vice President Marc Tayer.

“Before, HD was added on an ad hoc, as-needed basis,” Tayer says. “All of a sudden, it’s a race.”

Lacking a true triple-play of their own, satellite providers such as DirecTV have made HD content, particularly sports programming, a high priority. But the cable industry has taken issue with how some of its satellite competitors count their total number of HD offerings, since some of them include both West Coast and East Coast feeds, as well as regional sports networks that aren’t available to all subscribers.

Satellite operators also lack the interactive signal needed to deliver video-on-demand (VOD) content, while cable operators’ VOD platforms allow them to dramatically expand their HD offerings.

As of January 2008...
Figures are as of January 2008. *Average; varies by market.

Another large battle for providers is making sure that consumers know how to receive HD service once they’ve selected their operator of choice.

The Consumer Electronics Association’s most recent figure for U.S. HDTV penetration is 39 percent. But the CEA reports that fewer than half of those households actually receive HD programming.

Research by the Leichtman Research Group (LRG), released in November, found that while more than three-quarters of HDTV owners think they’re watching HD programming, only about 53 percent are actually getting HD signals from a cable, telco or satellite provider.

LRG says that about 4 percent of the above 53 percent are watching HD programming via broadcast only, which leaves about 20 percent of those with HDTVs erroneously thinking they’re watching HD when they’re not. And only 41 percent of the HDTV owners said that they were told how to receive HD programming when they bought their HDTVs.

Some cable operators have taken steps to inform their subscribers of the ins and outs of receiving the technology. In August, TWC and Cisco launched TWC’s “HD Clear & Simple” Web site, which provides information about setting up HDTV service.

But in order to inform their own subscribers about HD, operators first need to nab them. And President Phillip “Swanni” Swann, speaking at the SCTE Conference on Emerging Technologies, warned that cable needs to be careful of how it markets itself this year.

Instead of a “one-size-fits-all” approach, cable should tailor its triple-play and HD campaigns on a market-by-market basis, Swann says, because cable does not want to over-emphasize its triple-play campaigns in some markets and cause customers to think satellite has a better HD play.