Satellite Services Operators Expect HDTV Growth

By | April 19, 2004 | Feature

By Paul Dykewicz, PBI Media LLC

The inimitable Aretha Franklin used her booming and soulful voice to turn the song “Respect” into a huge hit. Respect is exactly what satellite services operators are giving the enormous potential of high-definition television (HDTV) services in the United States.

One of the driving forces behind the movement is Rainbow DBS and its VOOM satellite TV service. Mickey Alpert, the COO of Rainbow DBS, led off a panel discussion at SkyForum in New York City last Tuesday that featured top executives from a number of satellite services operators. He championed the prospects for HDTV, indicating his company is tethering its future to the emerging trend.

“When you watch high definition, it changes the way you watch television,” Alpert said.

With DirecTV [DirecTV] and EchoStar Communications [DISH] already serving roughly 22 million U.S. subscribers combined, Rainbow DBS needed to differentiate its fledgling satellite TV service and to choose HDTV as the way to do it. Rainbow DBS is offering an industry leading 35 channels of HDTV right now through its and its VOOM service. That programming selection includes 21 channels exclusively offered by VOOM. Cablevision [CVC], the parent company of Rainbow DBS and a cable operator in the Long Island area of New York City, is next in the multi-channel video community with 12 HD channels, Alpert said. DirecTV and EchoStar offer about seven HD channels each – or only 20 percent of the HD content currently provided by VOOM, he added.

“The way we thought we could differentiate ourselves the best was with high-definition television,” Alpert said. Indeed, VOOM will add more HD channels in the future.

Although others are taking a less aggressive approach, they also are looking to seize the ever more apparent opportunity posed by HDTV.

“Five years from now, local markets will be in HDTV,” said fellow panelist Eddy Hartenstein, vice chairman of The DirecTV Group [DTV], parent company of the DirecTV satellite television service that ranks as the largest in the United States. “One year from now, almost all prime time programming will be in HDTV. Once you’ve seen it in high-definition, you don’t want to go back.”

Some of the 35 channels of HDTV content offered by VOOM include programming that is “up-converted” from digital but the vast majority of it is produced in “native” HDTV, Alpert said.

“We’d like to carry everything in HD,” Alpert said. The trend is on VOOM’s side, he added, saying, “Ultimately, for satellite TV to be competitive with cable we need to deliver local channels in high definition.”

DirecTV also plans to provide local channels in high definition, Hartenstein said. Every DirecTV HD receiver has that capability.

“We are doing our part to promote digital and high-definition as quickly as we can,” Hartenstein said.

To further sweeten the appeal of its innovative service, VOOM will introduce personal video recorders this November that would allow the service to operate in every room of a subscriber’s home, Alpert said. Add in a 250 gigabyte hard drive, and VOOM will be offering unmatched offerings of what television subscribers most want right now: HDTV and PVRs.

With VOOM really only kicking off its commercial service in February, it “is the new kid on the block,” Alpert said.

In a follow-up interview after the panel discussion, SES Americom Senior Vice President Bryan McGuirk called HDTV an industry “game changer.” McGuirk, who attended but did not participate in the panel, said the trend toward HD is “irreversible and a great thing for the satellite industry.” His company will provide in-orbit satellite capacity to carry the bandwidth-hogging HDTV signals, and HDTV growth soon will take off, he predicted.

To meet that expected demand, SES is providing capacity at its prime orbital slot locations above the United States to seize that opportunity, McGuirk said.

Paul Dykewicz is senior editor and senior analyst of Satellite News. He can be reached at 301/354-1769 or at pdykewicz@pbimedia.com.

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