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Comcast, Charter Communications Add HDTV Channels

Some of the nation’s largest cable television interests revealed a new proactive approach to HDTV delivery in recent weeks with announcements that Comcast and Charter Communications will extend HDTV channels into additional territories.

Comcast Cable, which revealed an aggressive HDTV program for its Philadelphia markets late last year, said it would expand HDTV services to subscribers in several additional major markets by the end of 2002. The effort will start with the Washington Metro-Virginia region this summer, followed soon after by Detroit and Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, another major operator, Charter Communications, said it was planning the launch of HDTV services in seven markets, including Birmingham, Ala.; South Miami, Fla.; and St. Louis, Mo.

The news prompted Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), to tell a gathering of television broadcasters that the cable industry is now ready to embrace HDTV. He also commended advertising efforts by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in four DTV Zones. He then offered to contribute NCTA resources to help in the promotion of HDTV in markets where its members are offering those services.

“Broadcasters who offer any significant amount of HDTV programming are more and more likely to find receptive cable operators,” Sachs said at a recent Futures Conference for the National Association of Broadcasters. “Over the coming months, you’ll see still more cable operators launch HDTV. Cable operators are looking to add services that bring the most value for consumers.”

Jeff Joseph, a CEA spokesman, said his organization “welcomes the opportunity” to have the NCTA join with CEA and the NAB in promoting HDTV in markets where it makes sense.

Joseph added, “We are glad to have them join the party.” He said CEA anticipated cable operators would begin to step up their HDTV services after a number of leading cable leaders visited the 2002 Consumer Electronics Show and were surprised to see the volume of digital television products tied in with rival direct-to-home satellite services.

Comcast’s HDTV rollout schedule calls for service to begin in Northern Virginia in mid-2002 and rollout to the Maryland suburbs in the second half of the year. Washington, D.C., will see HDTV service in 2003. Comcast plans to offer HDTV in Detroit and Indianapolis during the second half of 2002.

Plans are to offer HDTV channels from major broadcast TV networks and cable service providers HBO and Showtime. Pricing will be announced later.

Comcast provides HDTV to subscribers of its digital cable services via a Motorola digital set-top box, and currently offers a Showtime and HBO HDTV tier to Philadelphia customers at a monthly rate of $10.95. In Washington, D.C., Comcast will also offer PBS affiliate and DTV pioneer WETA-HD, and will offer Comcast SportsNet. Beginning in 2003, the company said it plans to offer about 100 HDTV sporting events a year on Comcast SportsNet in each of the Washington and Philadelphia markets.

Coverage will include games from the Philadelphia Phillies, Flyers and 76ers; the Baltimore Orioles; and the Washington Capitals and Wizards.

Charter Communications, which is run by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, will offer HDTV during the second quarter in Alhambra/Pasadena and Glendale/Burbank, Calif.; University Park, Texas; South Miami, Fla.; and Birmingham, Ala. Additional markets, including Kalamazoo and St. Louis, Mo., will be added in the third quarter. More are being planned, the company said.

Charter plans to deliver DTV services from the major broadcast TV network affiliates, as well as HBO and Showtime HD.

John Pietri, Charter Communications engineering senior VP, said customers with high-definition televisions will use a special HDTV device from Charter to access HDTV programming. Details of the HDTV packages will be announced in a few weeks.

In addition to Comcast and Charter, the NCTA’s Sachs pointed out that Time Warner Cable is already offering high-def tiers in the 42 markets. Cablevision and Cox have also experimented with HDTV services in selected territories.

Sachs said cable can help get HDTV products into the home. “We believe that compelling high definition digital programming will drive DTV sales up and bring prices down to a range more consumers can afford. And for the DTV transition ever to succeed, this has to happen,” he said.