Cable Operators Embrace Dolby 5.1-Channel Surround

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Cable operators and cable-content providers are giving retailers more opportunities to sell the latest generation of surround-sound audio gear.

Cable multiple system operators (MSOs) continue to expand their digital-cable footprints, making it possible for more consumers to enjoy standard-definition (SD) and high-definition (HD) video content in 5.1-channel Dolby Digital surround. At the same time, the content community continues to increase the amount of SD and HD programming available in 5.1 to digital cable subscribers.

By April 2003, digital cable service surpassed a total of 85 million households, or 80 percent of the 106.6 million TV households in the United States, according to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA). That is up 26% from 2001 and almost double the prior year's 9.7 million.

The number of digital-cable subscribers hit 20 million in April, or about 28 percent of all U.S. cable subscribers, whose numbers slipped to 71.8 million as of May. In contrast, the number of digital-cable subscribers in 2000 was only 9.7 million.

In the estimation of research company Zenith Media, digital-cable subscribership will grow to 46.6 million homes in 2005, when digital cable households will account for 44 percent of a projected 83 million cable households.

Many of these subscribers will also have access to cable HD service, which cable operators began to deploy in earnest in 2002. By the end of last year, five of the top six cable operators delivered HD content in select markets. They were Comcast (including the merged AT&T Broadband), AOL Time Warner, Charter, Cox, and Cablevision (see story below).

Their combined subscriber bases account for about two-thirds of the country's cable subscribers.

Adelphia, also in the top six, plans to roll out HD in 5.1 beginning later this year, initially in the Yorba Linda, Calif., area and expanding service over the following nine months to 20 to 30 of the company's 82 designated market areas (DMAs), said a company spokesman.

Multiple smaller MSOs also offer HD service in select markets, including Insight, which serves small and midsize markets in the Midwest and Southeast, the NCTA told TWICE.

All told, cable HD service surpassed 55 million households as of June 1, or almost 52 percent of 106.6 million U.S. TV households, the NCTA said. That's up from 37 million households at the end of 2002 and 45 million at the end of February 2003.

The NCTA also points out that by the end of June, households in 78 of the top 100 cable DMAs were had at least one cable operator providing HD service. Those markets include 18 of the top 20 DMAs. In addition, 34 markets outside the top 100 also are served by cable HD, bringing the total number of DMAs served by HD to 112 out of the nation's 210.

The NCTA could not estimate the number of households that actually subscribe to cable HD service, however.

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