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Over-Air TV Networks Expanding 5.1 Content

Households that do not subscribe to digital cable or satellite-TV services are viewing HD content through a growing number of local HDTV stations, many of which deliver 5.1-channel surround.

By February 2004, the majority of local full-power commercial and public TV stations were broadcasting digital TV (DTV) signals in either SD or HD resolution, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) said. Out of 1,730 stations, the number of local TV stations that made the digital transition hit 1,155 in 203 markets in early February 2004, up from only 768 stations in 184 markets in February 2003, NAB said.

These stations deliver SD or HD video in markets accounting for more than 99 percent of the country’s more than 106 million TV households. More than 84 percent of those households could watch DTV broadcasts from five or more stations, NAB said.

The NAB said it believes the majority of DTV stations are delivering HD video, and Dolby Labs believes the number of DTV stations delivering 5.1 exceeded 150 in February 2004, up from only 90 of 177 DTV stations in early 2001.

These stations are getting more 5.1 content from their network parents, TWICE found.

Here’s what the TV networks are offering in HD 5.1:

ABC: ABC began delivering all of its HD programs in 5.1 in the 2001-2002 season, and in the 2003-2004 season, it broadcast more than 800 hours of HD 5.1 programs. They include all scripted primetime comedies and dramas, theatrical movies and Monday Night Football. In primetime, ABC broadcasts 17 hours per week in HD 5.1 to its affiliates.

Only 50 of ABC’s 112 HDTV affiliates, however, were delivering 5.1 to viewers as of November 2003. At that time, none of its 28 SD affiliates delivered 5.1.

CBS: CBS added 5.1 soundtracks to select HD programs for the first time in 2003 and probably will deliver 5.1 in its primetime HD programs during the 2004-2005 season, CBS engineering VP Robert Seidel told TWICE. In 2003, CBS’s 5.1 programs included the Grammy Awards, college basketball and football, the U.S. Open and select pro football games, including the 2004 Super Bowl. Other HD programs are delivered in Dolby Surround.

“To add 5.1 to other shows, we must make equipment conversions at our playback facilities and our editing facilities, where we format and edit series and movies,” Seidel explained.

By early 2004, almost half of CBS’s 175 DTV affiliates passed 5.1-channel soundtracks through to their viewers, Seidel said.

CBS has a total of 382 affiliates. Of those, 24 deliver SD video, and 151 deliver HD. Of the HD stations, 84 deliver 5.1. None of the SD stations deliver 5.1.

Fox: For the 2005-2005 season, the network plans a dramatic increase in the amount of 5.1-channel programming, and it will deliver 720p HD video for the first time, having previously delivered programs only in 480p.

At least half of the network’s schedule will be HD, with the rest in SD, a spokesman said. “Just about everything [in HD and SD] will be in 5.1.”

Among Fox’s 197 affiliates, about 150 to 160 were delivering Fox’s 480p signal in early 2004. All will be 5.1 HD-capable in time for Fox’s HD launch, the spokesman said.

The network launched 5.1 with select 480p programs in the 2002-2003 season following its 5.1-channel broadcast of the 2002 Super Bowl. In the 2003-2004 season, it delivered two NFL games per week and all NASCAR races in SD 5.1.

NBC: The network is testing 5.1 infrastructure to determine the feasibility of offering scripted series, movies and other programs regularly in 5.1, but the company offered no time frame for completing the tests or rolling out 5.1 if the tests are successful.

The network, which normally delivers HD content in Dolby Surround, broadcast the 2002 Winter Olympics in HD 5.1 and is currently working out the technical details to deliver the 2004 Summer Games in HD 5.1.

In the meantime, the network has been expanding its HD programming schedule, increasing the number of HD hours to 14.5 per week in the 2003-2004 season from 9.5 hours during the prior season. The programs include scripted shows and select theatrical releases. Unscripted shows are in SD. The mix of HD and SD programs will likely continue into the 2004-2005 season with possible exceptions, the company said.

By February 2004, 115 of NBC’s 231 affiliates were rebroadcasting NBC’s HDTV signal, and some of those stations were equipped to pass through a 5.1 soundtrack, the network said, citing an early-February survey of its affiliates. In that survey, 33 of 56 responding stations were 5.1-capable, NBC said. Another 21 said they would consider upgrading to 5.1 on the future.

PBS: The public network cites budget constraints for delivering only a handful of HD programs in 5.1. Of its 340 affiliates, 233 made the transition to HD as of February 2004, and all are capable of passing through 5.1.

UPN: CBS’s sister network, UPN, launched HD service in the 2003-2004 season, although it still isn’t delivering 5.1. Out of UPN’s 88 DTV affiliates, 24 delivered HD. UPN executive Paul Hewitt believes all of the HD affiliates are equipped to deliver 5.1.

UPN is delivering 20 percent to 40 percent of its weekly programming in HD, but “this is just the beginning,” Hewitt said. UPN is on the air five nights per week from 8 to10 p.m.

WB: The WB network, which launched HD in the 2002-2003 season, is targeting the 2004-2005 season for delivering some HD broadcasts in 5.1 and Dolby Surround, said senior technology VP Hal Protter. The network delivered 9.5 hours of HD programming per week in the 2003-2004 season.

In early 2004, about half of the network’s approximately 100 affiliates delivered HD, but none were delivering 5.1 or Dolby Surround. However, for the 2004-2005 season, 50 HD affiliates might deliver 5.1, the network said.

Another 20 affiliates delivered SD programming in early 2004 and will continue to do so in the 2004-2005 season. These stations aren’t delivering Dolby Surround or 5.1 and aren’t expected to do so until they convert to HD.

Who’s Delivering Over-Air HDTV In 5.1 Dolby Digital