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5.1 Surround Spreads With DTV, Digital Cable

Digital 5.1-channel surround is getting the “high five” from the content community.

The availability of 5.1-channel digital TV (DTV) continues to grow through digital cable operators, terrestrial DTV broadcasters, and satellite services, pacing the growing selection of 5.1-channel DVD-Video discs (see story below). Their content includes digital standard-definition TV (SDTV) and high-definition TV (HDTV) programs.

DirecTV and rival Dish Network, for example, deliver 5.1 through their SD pay-per-view channels, and they deliver 5.1 SD content provided by HBO, Showtime and Starz!.

As of last November, HBO had announced plans to broadcast at least two series (including “The Sopranos”) and 31 movies in 5.1-channel SD during the 2002-2003 season, while Showtime had announced six series and 67 movies, said Dolby Labs. Starz! had announced at least 12 movies to be broadcast in 5.1 SD.

5.1 cable: A growing number of consumers can also hear 5.1 content from HBO, Showtime and Starz! through digital cable systems, whose 5.1 lineup also includes pay-per-view movies.

An estimated 19.2 million households subscribed to digital cable service at the end of 2002, up 26 percent from 2001 and almost double the prior year’s 9.7 million, according to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA). Digital subscribers accounted for more than 25 percent of all 73 million U.S. cable subscribers, NCTA said.

Digital cable’s potential is even higher. Digital cable service passed a total of 85 million households by the end of 2002, or 83 percent of all households, the NCTA said. Research company Zenith Media estimates that digital-cable subscribership will grow about 30 percent each year for the next three years to 46.6 million homes in 2005, when digital cable households will account for 44 percent of a projected 83 million cable households.

Satellite, cable HD: Besides offering SD content in 5.1, cable and satellite operators are delivering a growing amount of 5.1 HDTV content. DirecTV and Dish Network, for example, blanket the continental United States with 5.1 HD channels. As of early 2003, their channels included pay-per-view HD channels, HBO HD, and Showtime HD. DirecTV also offers HDNet in 5.1, and Dish offers Discovery HD Theater, which is capable of delivering 5.1 if the content is produced in 5.1.

Cable operators, meanwhile, are rolling out HD service to more markets. Geographic coverage, however, is still relatively limited compared with cable SD service, but it’s expanding rapidly.

By the end of February 2003, cable HD service passed more than 45 million TV households, or 42 percent of 106.6 million U.S. TV households, the NCTA said. That’s up from the 37 million households passed by HD cable at the end of 2002.

By the end of February, 73 of the top 100 cable markets were served by at least one cable operator offering HD.

By the end of last year, five of the top six cable operators were delivering HD content in 5.1-channel sound. They are Comcast (including the merged AT&T Broadband), AOL Time Warner, Charter, Cox and Cablevision, and their combined subscriber bases account for about 66 percent of the country’s 73 million cable subscribers, NCTA statistics show. Adelphia, also in the top six, plans to roll out HD later in 2003 but hasn’t discussed its 5.1 plans.

HD-cable subscribers view content from such providers as HBO HD, Showtime HD and Discovery HD Theater. On top of that, cable operators rebroadcast the signals of local HDTV stations in more than half of the top 73 cable HD markets, the NCTA said.

Among premium content providers available through cable and satellite, Showtime said it delivers most of its HD content in 5.1. For its part, HBO HD said 38 percent of its theatrical releases would be in 5.1 in its May 2003 lineup, as would HD episodes of “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under.”

Satellite, cable outlook: More 5.1 HD content is on the way. Comcast Sports Net is one of the newest providers of HD cable content, beginning early this year to offer regional sports programs in HD and 5.1 in the Philadelphia and Washington-Baltimore markets. In the second half of 2003, HBO’s Cinemax service plans an HD launch that will include an unspecified amount of 5.1 programming.

Content providers ESPN, Bravo and InDemand will shortly launch HD service, but the 5.1 plans of Bravo and InDemand were unavailable. ESPN said it would deliver its content in matrixed surround, not 5.1.

Terrestrial DTV: Additional 5.1 content is available through local DTV stations, many of which deliver digital 5.1-channel surround with their SD or HD programs.

By February 2003, 768 TV stations were broadcasting SD or HD content in 184 market, which accounted for 97 percent of all U.S. TV households, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) said. About 176 (or 23 percent) of those stations had turned on their 5.1 transmitters by that time, and the number is rising, Dolby Labs said. In early 2002, only 120 of 249 DTV stations were delivering 5.1, and in early 2001, the number was only 90 of 177, Dolby said.

Meantime, the traditional TV networks are delivering more 5.1 content to their local affiliates. ABC’s HD programs will account for 260 hours of the network’s content, or 60 percent of its schedule. this season.

For its part, Fox announced select SD 5.1 programming for the 2002-2003 season following its 5.1-channel broadcast of the 2002 Super Bowl. Fox programs due in 5.1 include all Fox Sports programs broadcast in widescreen SD and theatrical movies purchased from Fox Films.

PBS has already delivered a handful of its HD and SD programs in 5.1.

CBS, NBC and UPN, meanwhile, are moving toward 5.1.

CBS, which delivers HD content in Dolby Surround, said its primetime HD series might be offered in 5.1 in the upcoming 2003-2004 season, with other programs — specials, sports and movies — possibly arriving earlier.

NBC, which also delivers HD content in Dolby Surround, is still upgrading its infrastructure to offer programs on a regular basis in 5.1. As of early 2003, a target date hadn’t been announced.