How To Find High-Definition Content For Your HDTV 
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Written by Adrienne Maxwell   
Saturday, 01 July 2006


How To Find High-Definition Content For Your HDTV
By Adrienne Maxwell
July 2006

Walk into any sports bar in the country and you’re likely to see the same thing. Rows of brand-new widescreen flat panels adorn the walls, purchased by owners anxious to make their place “the” place to watch the big game. But don’t except to be treated to HDTV on said panels. No, what you often see are plain old standard-definition signals – even worse, plain old standard-definition signals stretched disproportionately across the screen. It begs the question, why spend thousands of dollars to upgrade to HDTVs and not shell out a little extra cash to actually show high-definition programming?

A recent study by Forrester Research suggests that bar owners aren’t the only ones selling themselves and their HDTVs short. The report, commissioned by set-top box manufacturer Scientific Atlanta, revealed that 49 percent of the HDTV owners surveyed are not watching any HD programming on their TV. Some – like my own mother, in fact – have made a conscious choice not to pursue HDTV right now. Dear old mum was seduced by an LCD’s slender form factor when shopping for a new TV, but she has no interest in paying for the HD package offered by her satellite provider. She, like many, is content to wait until The Man forces the HDTV transition on her.

I don’t understand this rationale, but at least it’s an informed choice – something many people aren’t equipped to make. The Forrester study proves that misinformation (or at least a lack of information) still abounds in the world of HDTV. Twenty-eight percent of those questioned haven’t requested any special HDTV equipment from their satellite or cable provider because they already perceive improved quality in their new TVs; 23 percent haven’t invested in special equipment because the message at the beginning of many programs tells them that those programs are being broadcast in HD; 18 percent didn’t even know they needed special equipment to receive HDTV channels.

For those of you who are new to the HDTV game, two steps are necessary in order to watch HDTV: You need to purchase an HDTV and you need to add the equipment necessary to access high-definition channels on that new HDTV. Step two may be as simple as buying a small antenna or swapping cable boxes. It all depends on which HDTV channels you want and how much you’re willing to pay to get them.

Over-the-Air HDTV
Like a regular analog TV, a true HDTV has a built-in tuner that allows you to access the free over-the-air HDTV broadcasts of the major networks: ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, UPN and the WB. All you need to do is purchase an antenna to tune in those channels. A good online resource to help you determine what kind of antenna to buy is the Consumer Electronics Association’s www.antennaweb.org. Go to the home page, click “choose an antenna” and input your street address. The site provides a list of the channels broadcast in your area, as well as the frequency, UHF or VHF, in which they reside. This will help you determine if you need a UHF, VHF or dual antenna. You’ll notice that both analog and digital stations are listed; the stations with the “-DT” label are the HDTV channels. It also shows you where the signals are broadcast from in relation to your house, which tells you where to aim the antenna once you buy it.

Notice I said that a “true” HDTV has the built-in tuner. If your TV is labeled “HDTV monitor,” then it doesn’t have an internal HDTV tuner. You have to purchase one separately from companies like Samsung, Sony and LG. HDTV monitors are becoming less common, because the FCC has mandated the inclusion of tuners in an increasing number of HD-capable TVs.

Going the antenna/tuner route is a fairly simple way to get free HDTV channels, but it has its drawbacks: the signal can be unstable and the channel selection is limited. Sure, you’ve got the big ones like ABC and CBS, but the major networks aren’t the only ones broadcasting HDTV programming. If you want access to channels like ESPN, ESPN 2, Discovery and TNT in HD, then you must look to a cable or satellite provider.

Digital Cable
Regardless of what you may have heard, having digital cable isn’t the same thing as having an HDTV programming package. Yes, HDTV is digital, but digital isn’t necessarily HDTV. Not every cable provider in the country offers an HDTV package, but the big names – Comcast, Cablevision, Adelphia and Time Warner – certainly do. If you’re a cable subscriber who has recently purchased a new HDTV, just call your cable operator or visit its website to find out if HDTV is available in your area. If it is, you’ll need to trade in your existing cable box for an HD model, and your provider will probably charge an additional fee to rent the HD equipment. That fee varies per provider; in my area of Los Angeles, Adelphia is the lone cable option, and they charge $6.90 per month for HDTV. Several providers also offer HD DVRs, so you can record your HD channels; this probably costs extra as well. I pay $13.90 per month, which is a bit high, but totally worth the convenience of having a dual-tuner HD DVR that lets me record one HDTV program while I watch another.

Because there are so many different cable providers offering different packages in different parts of the country, it’s impossible to summarize exactly which HD channels, if any, you can access in your area. Some cable companies are very generous in their HDTV programming, offering almost every major HDTV channel available for one flat fee. Others (like mine) offer only the major networks and charge a fee to add channels like ESPN. One nice benefit for cable subscribers is that, if your cable provider does offer HDTV programming, it’s pretty much a given that local channels like ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are included, something that can’t be said about satellite service. Still, you should ask your cable company exactly which channels it offers in HD and how much it will cost you before you sign up for the package. Only you can decide how much HDTV programming is worth to you.

Satellite Service
As with cable, subscribing to an HD package from DirecTV or Dish Network requires that you upgrade your current equipment. That means a new satellite receiver and dish. Since satellite companies offer general subscription packages for the whole country, it’s easier to ascertain exactly which HDTV channels you get for your money, except when it comes to the major networks, but more on that in a minute.

DirecTV: DirecTV’s basic HDTV package costs $9.99 per month, on top of the monthly cost of the Total Choice programming package to which you subscribe. Equipment costs vary, but through DirecTV’s website, the HD satellite receiver is currently free after a $99 rebate, while the HD DVR box will cost you $399 after a $100 rebate. The programming package includes ESPN HD, ESPN2 HD, TNT HD, Discovery HD Theater, HDNet, HDNet Movies and Universal HD (films and television shows distributed by NBC/Universal, such as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Monk”). HBO HD, Showtime HD and NFL Sunday Ticket in HD are available at no extra cost to customers who already subscribe to the standard-definition versions of these premium channels.

As for ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, DirecTV is slowly making these channels available in HD around the country. As of this writing, local HD channels are available in the following areas: Los Angeles, New York City, Detroit, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Tampa, Washington D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta and San Francisco. By mid-2006, DirecTV plans to add local HD in the following areas: Baltimore, Minneapolis, Birmingham, Nashville, Charlotte, Orlando, Cleveland, Phoenix, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Denver, Raleigh, Fresno, Sacramento, Hartford, Salt Lake City, Indianapolis, San Diego, Kansas City, Seattle, Miami, St. Louis, Milwaukee and West Palm Beach. If you already pay to receive local channels as part of your DirecTV package, these HD channels are available free of charge, but you will need a new satellite receiver and satellite dish. To see if local HD channels are available in your area, go to: http://www.directv.com/DTVAPP/see/LocalChannels.jsp?init=true.

Dish Network: Instead of adding HD channels on top of existing packages the way DirecTV does, Dish Network offers four dedicated HD programming packages that range from $50 per month (for 25 HD channels and over 80 SD channels) up to $100 per month (for 29 HD channels and over 200 SD channels). The lineup features the same HD channels listed above for DirecTV (minus the exclusive sports package), plus NFL Network, HGTV HD, National Geographic Channel HD, Starz HD, and other dedicated HD channels that Dish Network picked up from the short-lived VOOM HD satellite service. If you’re looking for sheer volume of HDTV content, Dish Network has everyone else beat.

Through the company’s website, you can currently get Dish Network’s HD satellite receiver for $49.99 or the HD DVR costs $199.99, plus $5.98 per month for DVR service. The company charges $5 per month to receive local channels, including local HD channels, in areas where they are available. Right now, local HD channels are available in Kansas City, Albuquerque, Atlanta, Boston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Nashville, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Phoenix, Portland (OR), Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Spokane. To check availability in your area, go to: http://www.dishtv.com/hd/programming/locals/index.shtml.

If your area does not yet receive local channels in HD – or you just don’t want to hassle with changing your equipment – you can always access the free over-the-air versions of these channels (see above). Some HD satellite receivers even have a built-in HDTV tuner to make tuning in even easier.

So, Is HDTV Worth It?
In a word, absolutely. In a few more words, anyone who tells you that there’s not enough content available in HDTV isn’t paying attention. With the exception of reality shows, just about every primetime show on the Big Four networks is broadcast in high-definition. So, too, is every major sporting event and plenty of minor ones. Afternoon soap operas. Late-night talk shows. Nature and history shows galore. Unless you spend all of your time surfing highly specific niche channels, there’s plenty of HDTV content to be found on television.

On the software side of things, a format called D-VHS used to be the only way to watch pre-recorded HD discs, but that’s about to change with the arrival of Blu-ray and HD-DVD players. These players are coming to market in the next few months, with software titles from the major studios soon to follow (or so we’ve been told).

Yes, a time will come – February 2009, if the FCC keeps its promise – when it will be much easier to find HDTV content. That’s when broadcasters will switch to a completely digital system. Until then, you have to do a bit of research in order to make the most of your HDTV. Trust us when we tell you that, once you’ve watched an episode of “CSI” or “Lost” in high definition, you quickly forget the work and simply enjoy the reward.





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