Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Three ways to get HDTV programming - Cable


Wide variety of programming available, including cable HDTV networks and local HDTV stations; many carriers will provide the set-top box or HD package either for free or for less than $10 per month; set-top boxes with HD DVRs available.
While more HDTV programming is available over cable than via an antenna, choices are still spotty; outlying areas may not have cable access at all; regular monthly charges for HD-compatible set-top box and/or additional programming packages.
With more providers nationwide coming onboard with HDTV, cable offers the most convenient high-def hookup option for most people.

There's an excellent chance you can get HDTV signals through your current cable provider. As of December 2005, about 96 million U.S. households were "passed" by a cable operator that offers HDTV, and all of the top 100 cable markets in the country were "passed" by a cable company with HDTV programming. That's the good news. The bad news is that most providers carry only a handful of the 20-odd HDTV cable networks.


Scientific Atlanta's Explorer 8300HD high-def cable box
Scientific Atlanta's Explorer 8300HD high-def cable box
To watch HDTV stations over cable, you'll need an HD-capable tuner/descrambler from your cable provider, although that's changing (see sidebar). Some carriers will give you the HD tuner box for free, others rent them for modest fees, and some even offer DVRs capable of recoding HD programming. None of the carriers we surveyed charge extra for the HDTV versions of the major broadcast networks such as ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC; some charge extra for the specialty HD networks such as ESPN HD, HDNet, and INHD. In our informal survey, digital cable subscriptions (with or without HDTV) were $5 to $10 more expensive per month than their analog counterparts--and you need digital cable to get HDTV via cable. In some cases, the providers don't charge extra for the HDTV packages; instead, they charge an extra $5 to $10 for HD-capable boxes.


Numerous pay-TV networks have jumped on the HDTV bandwagon. HBO and Showtime subscribers can watch favorites such as The Sopranos, Deadwood, The L Word, Weeds, and Rome in high-def. (If you're a Sex in the City fan and you were hoping to catch reruns in HD, we have bad news: your favorite comedy was produced in standard-definition only.) HBO and Showtime both offer 24-hour HD movie channels where the majority of films appear in HDTV, and Cinemax, the Movie Channel, and Starz all come in HD versions as well.

HBO's Rome is available in HD
HBO's Rome is available in HD
Many other cable- and satellite-only networks boast HD programming, including ESPN and ESPN2 (SportsCenter, selected games from MLB, the NFL, NBA, and college sports), NBC's Universal HD (Battlestar Galactica, Monk, Law & Order: SVU, Medical Investigation), the Discovery Channel (The Jeff Corwin Experience and Crocodile Hunter), Mark Cuban's all-HD channels HDNet and HDNet Movies, INHD and INHD2 (IMAX movies, NBA basketball, concerts), TNT HD (The Closer, Hunted, Law & Order, ER, Alias, NASCAR, and selected NBA games), and NBA TV (with about 50 games per season). In January 2006, the National Geographic Channel began airing an HD channel. Coverage is still spotty, however; just because your cable provider offers the standard version of these stations doesn't mean you'll get the HDTV versions by default.


While there are plenty of cable HDTV cable networks on tap, most cable companies carry only a handful of them. Most of the big carriers we surveyed offered about eight or nine HDTV stations each, usually including HDTV versions of major networks HBO, Showtime, and a few other choices.

Local HDTV stations have also been slow to arrive on cable. As of December 2005, cable operators carried 681 of the country's 1,550-plus local digital broadcasters. That means there's some chance that you won't be able to watch your local ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN, or WB affiliates in HDTV over your cable setup. You could always watch your local HDTV stations using an over-the-air antenna, but we'd rather get all our HDTV from a single source.

Plug-and-play cable HDTV

A typical CableCard
A typical CableCard
Many of today's HDTV sets require a set-top box to watch high-definition programs over cable. However, thanks to "plug-and-play" guidelines enacted by Congress and the FCC, a growing number of new HDTV sets can decode digital cable signals without a set-top box. The first plug-and-play HDTV sets with the ability to work directly with digital cable, officially called Digital Cable Ready (DCR), began rolling off assembly lines in late 2004. Ideally, you simply plug the cable into your new DCR HDTV set, insert a CableCard (a smart card from your cable company that unscrambles premium channels), and surf away. However, cable companies have been slow to adopt the initial version of the CableCard standard because it doesn't allow for two-way communication--meaning you can't order their pay-per-view programming or use an interactive programming guide. DCR has other limitations too. For example, one-way CableCards are single-stream, meaning they can't let the TV tune more than one channel at a time--as opposed to many cable-box DVRs that can tune and/or record two channels at once. In their favor, CableCards may provide marginally better picture quality than a set-top box, since the signal is decoded directly by the HDTV itself.

An improved, two-way version of the standard, dubbed Interactive Digital Cable Ready, is being developed, and other alternatives utilizing the Open Cable platform are under discussion. Negotiations for two-way CableCard and its permutations are very slow, however, and we don't expect to see any such products until 2007 at the earliest.

Meanwhile, HDTVs with QAM tuners but no card access--meaning they'll work with only unscrambled DTV broadcasts--are also available. Depending on your cable provider, one of these sets could allow you to receive some high-def channels by simply plugging in the cable.


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