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5.1 Cable Content: What’s Available

The amount of 5.1-channel content available through cable systems is on the upswing. Here’s what’s available to your customers if they live in markets served by standard-definition (SD) or high-definition (HD) cable services:

5.1 SD content: SD programming is offered in 5.1 by HBO, multiple Showtime Networks channels, and multiple Starz! movie channels. Cable systems’ pay-per-view movies are also available in 5.1.

On its main SD channel, HBO delivered about half of its total airtime hours in 5.1 between January and July 2003, including The Sopranos and multiple movies, a spokesperson said. About 25 percent of its movie and series titles were in 5.1 during that period.

HBO’s other SD channels — HBO2, HBO Signature, HBO Family, HBO Comedy, HBO Zone, and HBO Latino – aren’t available in 5.1.

Showtime Networks, on the other hand, delivers 5.1 with all its feeds, a spokeswoman said. They include premium channels Showtime, The Movie Channel (TMC) and Flix as well as multiplex channels Showtime Too, Showtime Showcase, Showtime Extreme, Showtime Beyond, Showtime Next, Showtime Women, Showtime Familyzone, TMC Extra, Showtime On Demand, TMC On Demand and Sundance Channel. Showtime PPV, which delivers sports and entertainment events, is also capable of delivering 5.1.

From January-June 2003, the Showtime SD channel delivered 5.1 with 77 percent of its prime-time titles, on average, and the company’s The Movie Channel (TMC) offered 5.1 with 66 percent of its primetime titles during that time, a spokesperson said.

Among the 13 SD channels operated by the Starz Encore Group, four deliver 5.1-channel audio, according to the company’s Web site. They are Starz!, Encore, Starz! Theater and Starz! On Demand. In 2002, the Starz! channel delivered 5.1 surround on average 49 percent of the time each day, with the percentage ramping up to an average 61 percent in prime time, a spokesman said. The other three channels offer less 5.1 programming, the company’s Web site showed.

A Bravo spokesperson wasn’t sure whether Bravo’s SD channel is available in 5.1.

HBO’s Cinemax channel isn’t available in 5.1.

5.1 HD content: HD-cable subscribers can hear HD content in 5.1 from such programmers as HBO HD, Showtime HD, HDNet, and regional sports network Comcast Sports Net. In addition, Discovery HD Theater is capable of delivering 5.1 if their content is produced in 5.1.

Soon, subscribers will also be able to hear HD programming in 5.1 from Bravo HD, Cinemax HD, and two new Starz! HD channels.

Bravo HD, for example, plans to offer a “couple” of programs in 5.1 for the first time in September, a spokesperson said. The cable network “is actively pursuing additional programs in 5.1,” she added.

Sometime in the second half, HBO’s Cinemax service plans an HD launch that will include an unspecified amount of 5.1 programming.

“Toward the end of the year,” a Starz Encore spokesman said. Starz! will offer two HD movie services — Starz! HD and Sharper Movies HD— and a lower resolution Starz! Hi-Res movie service, all in 5.1. The HD services will be in 1,080i, and the Hi-Res service will be a widescreen service with 480 horizontal interlaced lines to conserve cable operator bandwidth.

A&E Television Networks also plans HD services, but its 5.1 plans were unavailable. The company operates the A&E channel, History Channel and Biography Channel.

ESPN’s HD service, launched March 30, is broadcast in matrixed surround.

For its part, Showtime HD said that on average, it delivered 77 percent of its primetime hours in the January-June 2003 period in 5.1. HBO HD said about 50 percent of its program hours during the January-July period were in 5.1, including the series The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.

Comcast Sports Net offers regional sports programs in HD and 5.1 but only in the Philadelphia and Washington-Baltimore markets.

HDNet offers a limited amount of HD programming in 5.1.

InDemand and Madison Square Garden Network also deliver HD content, but information on their 5.1 plans was unavailable.

5.1 Rebroadcasts: On top of these HD sources, cable operators also rebroadcast the digital signals of local DTV and HDTV stations in many cable markets, and they pass through 5.1 surround if broadcast by the local station, the NCTA said.

As of June 1, cable operators in 67 DMAs were carrying 190 different broadcast stations that provide a digital TV signal, NCTA said.

Only a minority of local DTV stations have fired up their 5.1 transmitters, but their numbers have grown steadily. In February 2003, 768 TV stations were broadcasting SD or HD content in 184 markets that accounted for 97% of all U.S. TV households, according to the National Association of Broadcasters. About 176 (or 23%) of those stations were delivering 5.1, Dolby Labs said.

Over-air TV networks, nonetheless, are delivering more 5.1 content to their local affiliates. For example, Fox Sports launched 5.1 earlier this year and has begun offering regional sports programs in Fox Widescreen and 5.1 to Fox DTV affiliates.