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More Digital Television Viewers Getting The High 5.1

More consumers are enjoying digital standard-definition TV (SDTV) and high-definition TV (HDTV) content in 5.1-channel Dolby Digital than ever before, a TWICE survey found.

More content providers, including HBO and Starz!, are delivering 5.1-channel surround with select SDTV and HDTV programs through satellite-TV operators and digital-cable operators, which are expanding their digital SD and HD footprints. Select TV networks, meantime, are delivering more HDTV programming in 5.1 to a growing number of local affiliates capable of broadcasting 5.1 (see story below).

In the satellite realm, DirecTV and rival Dish Network deliver 5.1 with select SDTV and HDTV programs to a combined subscriber base that hit about 21 million at the end of 2003.

However, by the end of 2003, about as many households were listening to 5.1 soundtracks through digital-cable systems, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) said. In the third quarter of 2003, more than 30 percent of U.S. cable customers, or about 21.5 million households, subscribed to digital-cable service, which delivers 5.1 if the content is provided to them in 5.1. That’s up 12 percent from an estimated 19.2 million households at the end of 2002 and 9.7 million at the end of 2000, NCTA said.

The digital-subscriber numbers include HD cable subscribers, but NCTA does not break out HD subscriptions separately.

Digital cable’s potential subscriber base is also growing. Digital cable service passed a total of 90 million homes, or 85 percent of all U.S. households, by the end of 2003, the NCTA said. That’s up from 85 million households at the end of 2002.

Cable’s HD footprint doesn’t yet match cable’s SD footprint, but it is widening. HD cable went on-line for the first time in 2002 in limited markets, but by Dec. 1, 2003, it was available to 70 million U.S. households, up almost 90 percent from the beginning of 2003, the NCTA said. By the end of 2003, almost 65 percent of all 108.4 million U.S. TV households could subscribe to cable HD service.

At least one cable operator in 96 of the top 100 cable markets (including all of the top 30 markets) offered HD at the end of 2003, NCTA said. Cable HD operators also serve 47 markets outside the top 100, bringing the total number of HD-cable markets to 143 out of 210.

5.1 HD content: These digital-cable operators, like their satellite rivals, are delivering a growing amount of HDTV content in 5.1.

Currently, Showtime said it delivers most of its HD content in 5.1. HBO said its HD channel delivered 46 percent of its airtime in 5.1 between August 2003 and January 2004.

In 2003, at least eight more HD channels, all with 5.1, were launched, and at least one other HD channel added 5.1 capability. In 2004, more HD channels and more 5.1 content are coming.

HD 5.1 channels launched in 2003 included Comcast Sports Net, Discovery HD Theater, Showtime Networks, The Movie Channel HD, HBO’s Cinemax HD, Starz Encore’s Starz! HD and Sharper Movies HD channels, Bravo HD and Spice HD. In 2004, ESPN HD is gearing up to deliver 5.1.

Most of these providers have made a major commitment to 5.1. Between December 2003 and January 2004, for example, Cinemax’s HD channel delivered 48 percent of its airtime in 5.1. Discovery HD Theater delivered 45 percent of its programming hours in 5.1 in 2003 and promises to boost the percentage to at least 50 percent in 2004.

Launched in late 2003, the Starz! HD channel is already delivering 76 percent of its primetime hours in 5.1. Forty-six percent of its total daily airtime was in 5.1. Sister channels Sharper Movies HD and Starz! Hi Res, a lower resolution wide-screen service, also launched late last year with an unspecified amount of 5.1 audio programming.

For its part, Bravo HD delivered its first 5.1 program in late 2003. In 2004, it plans to deliver at least six 5.1-channel performances, each to be broadcast multiple times.

In select markets, HD-cable subscribers are also able to use their HD cable box to tune into the 5.1-channel programs of local HDTV stations. By the end of 2003, digital-cable operators were rebroadcasting the content of 304 HDTV stations, up from 190 on June 1, 2003, the NCTA said. If the local stations are broadcasting in 5.1, the cable operators pass it through to their HD subscribers, the NCTA said.

Local HDTV stations are also available in select markets through satellite operators. Select CBS HD is 5.1.

5.1 SD content: While launching 5.1-channel HD channels, select content providers continue to offer select SD programming in 5.1 to cable and satellite operators. The providers include Home Box Office, Showtime Networks and the Starz Encore Group.

Here’s what they offer:

HBO: Among its SD channels, HBO continues this year to deliver 5.1 only over its main HBO channel in early 2004. HBO’s 5.1 broadcasts accounted for 46 percent of the channel’s total airtime between August 2003 and January 2004. Currently, the company isn’t delivering 5.1 over its Cinemax SD channel or its six other HBO-branded SD channels, including HBO2.

Showtime Networks: Like last year, Showtime Networks is able to deliver 5.1 through all of its more than 32 SD and HD channels. The 5.1-channel channels included Showtime, The Movie Channel, Flix, Showtime Too, Showtime On Demand, Showtime PPV and Sundance Channel.

Starz Encore: Among more than a dozen SD channels operated by Starz Encore, three deliver select content in 5.1: Starz!, Starz! Theater and Encore. In early 2004, the percentage of Starz! airtime delivered in 5.1 hit an average 40 percent each day, with the primetime average hitting 65 percent, the company said. Starz! Theater content was available in 5.1 49 percent of the time each day and 74 percent of the time during primetime. Encore averaged 25 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

Other cable- and satellite-content providers, including Bravo and Discovery Networks, deliver matrixed Dolby Surround with their SD feeds.