Knowing Where to Find HDTV Programming

In the vein of "all dressed up and nowhere to go," HDTVs would be no good without content to show on them — native, high-definition content, that is. Hollywood has done its usual: "If there's a place to put the content, we'll come out with it." And the manufacturers have said, "If you make the content, we'll build the systems." Lucky for us, DVDs and higher-definition camcorders have created a lot of reasons to want higher-resolution TVs, and that has prompted the broadcasters to follow suit with their own HDTV content.

Show me the show

Advertisements are everywhere for HDTV sets, HDTV programming, HDTV services from a cable company, or something HDTV. Other indicators of HDTV mania are the sheer volume of HDTV programming that's become available from different sources and the profusion of ways the average person can now access that programming.

Broadcasters

One group of TV providers that is really seeing the light is the broadcast networks (such as ABC and CBS) and local affiliate stations that broadcast the network content over the airwaves. This hasn't happened purely because the broadcast folks are being good TV citizens. It's because the FCC has mandated a transition from analog to digital TV. Eventually, all of these broadcasters will need to turn off their analog signals and send out DTV broadcasts (note that it's DTV, not HDTV — lower resolution 480p or even 480i signals can be broadcast).

It's not all pressure from the FCC, however, that is driving this. Broadcast networks are increasingly competing with cable networks — though it's a bit of a misnomer, we use this term to describe networks you can only get via cable or satellite (such as HBO or TNT). Broadcasting in HDTV — especially for big-ticket items like prime-time shows and major-league sporting events — gives the broadcast networks a leg up on cable networks (many of which are still stuck in Analog TV Land). The five major broadcast networks (that would be ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and The WB) are broadcasting at least some HDTV content.

The best thing about broadcast network HDTV (often called OTA, or over-the-air) is that it's free. Free as in free beer. No cost to you (except maybe having to watch some bad ads). All you need is an HDTV with a built-in or external tuner, and an antenna.

Cable and satellite networks

The cable networks (the networks you can't get with a rabbit-ear antenna) have not been sitting around idly while broadcast networks began to send out this free HDTV to their viewers. In fact, many cable networks have developed and launched their own high-definition channels — ranging from movie channels, like HBO or Showtime High Def, to sports, like ESPN-HD.

The biggest problem that cable networks have had is finding cable or satellite networks to carry these channels to customers. Basically, cable and satellite systems have a limited amount of bandwidth (or slots for TV channels) within their broadcast systems. HDTV uses five to eight times as much bandwidth per channel as does analog TV — or to reverse that, you can fit five to eight analog TV channels in the slot occupied by one HDTV channel. So it's taken a bit of time for cable and satellite companies to begin to show interest in carrying HDTV channels.

The good news is that both groups of TV providers have begun to carry at least a handful of HDTV stations — often more. To get into these HDTV cable signals, you need the following:

  • An HDTV service contract with your cable or satellite company. Unlike broadcast, this isn't free — you've got to pay the piper.
  • An HDTV satellite receiver or set-top box (for cable).

Specialized HDTV stations

Existing broadcast and cable networks aren't the only ones to realize the potential of HDTV. A small flurry of new networks specifically delivers HDTV channels to cable and satellite providers. A good example of this is HDNet, the brainchild of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. HDNet was launched with the sole purpose of providing a range of original programming (news, sports, and series) — along with licensed programming from other studios (like Andy Richter's show!) — all in full 1080i HDTV. You can get HDNet's two channels on both of the major satellite networks, as well as a growing number of cable provider's networks.

HDNet was the first, but not the last high-def-only network. For example, a cable-only network (owned by a consortium of cable companies) called INHD provides two channels with a variety of original and licensed programming of sports, movies and other content.

Make your choice

When it comes to fulfilling your HDTV needs, there's some good news and some bad news. The good news is, you probably have a choice of where you get your HDTV content. The bad news is — well, you have to choose. This means hours of research and poring over Web sites, trying to figure out what works best to fit your HDTV needs.

There's nothing wrong with mixing and matching among these different sources. For example, if you want local HDTV content along with your satellite-TV source, you need to hook up an antenna to your dish and pick up the OTA broadcasts — luckily, most HDTV satellite receivers have a built-in OTA HDTV tuner, so you don't need extra equipment (beyond the antenna).

So, given that wishy-washy disclaimer (sorry, but it's true!), here's some advice on choosing a content provider:

1. Figure out what's even available. Research Web sites and other resources to help you find out what you can get in your house.

2. Look at your budget. Keep in mind the fact that "free" OTA HDTV may not be free if you have an "HDTV-ready" system, and need to spend hundreds of dollars on an external HDTV tuner. Cable, on the other hand, might include a monthly fee, but doesn't require any "up-front" expenses for tuners or set-top boxes. Many cable companies give you local HDTV channels free for the price of the set-top-box rental ($10/month or less, typically). Satellite may have lower monthly fees than cable, but also requires an up-front purchase of the receiver.

3. Examine closely the channel lineups available to you. Remember that quantity and quality are two different things. For example, one HDTV satellite company might offer more HDTV channels than anyone else, but you may not be interested in watching all of them. For example, your personality might not fully appreciate some of the more um, esoteric programming that's available. Look for the channels that you love.

4. Consider the performance. Consider the ways that various TV providers throttle back their HDTV signals to save bandwidth on their networks.

In the end, you may find something less than coldly rational and logical that makes you decide on an HDTV provider. For example, if you're a huge baseball fan and your local cable outfit is broadcasting 100+ ball games a year, versus 25 on satellite, then the decision isn't difficult!

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