Current HDTV Programming
A Window into HDTV Back in 2007
It has come a long way, baby!
Customers need to know the selection of brilliant images, along with their programs, are only as good as the local cable provider's willingness to invest in adding a true variety of new HDTV content to their already available list of cable channels, premium channels, and pay-per-view programming. For the areas Charter Communication services across the country, which are included in the 4,200 different locations listed on its Web site, the answer is at least for us in western North Carolina . . .
In fact, Charter in early 2005 and probably along with many other cable providers, seems to treat HDTV programming like an experiment rather than a growing segment of their business. Their cable advertising promotes all the things you can see on their HDTV programming, but all the things you can see are not available on Charter . . . not even close. However, it's not all their fault, as you will soon discover.
Peter Putman (CTS), wrote an interesting byline for the Internet site (link taken down from server), LookSmart, at the end of 2003 where he reported the original leaders in HDTV programming were a handful of TV networks (CBS, ABC, and PBS) along with a few cable / Direct Broadcast System (DBS) channels like Showtime and HBO.
But now he reports that NBC, UPN, and WB have joined into the fray. He also notes that NBC has now managed to get most of its prime-time series into the 1080i HDTV digital format while WB is expanding its prime-time offerings up to seven weekly shows, as the Fox Channel readies to offer 50% of its programming in HDTV in early 2005.
In the cable / DBS world, Peter notes HDNet offers two channels of programming plus quite a few movies as the Movie Channel itself gears up for HD service. And for sports, ESPN HD is well into its rollout of 720p (see glossary) sports coverage.
I personally have discovered Discovery HD Theater has provided stunning and spectacular nature and travel programming for more than a year now, yet is was only added to the Charter lineup in late 2004.
Add to this one of cable's most popular standard channel, WGN-TV out of Chicago, with an announcement to transmit all White Sox, Cubs, and Bulls games in HDTV, and one can see that the HDTV world is filling with programming for those $2,000 to $8,000 wide-screen HDTV sets.
Now if we could only get the available HDTV programming to the jacks on back our HDTV sets.
Using Charter Communications as an example of how HDTV programming may be handled by other cable companies across the country, let's look at the reality of HDTV programming available from cable television. As mentioned above, Charter Communications is the provider of cable and HDTV programming in many areas across the country, including several south eastern states. While it is one of the larger cable companies, its offerings of HDTV programming in early 2005, when compared to what is available in the real HDTV world, seemed inadequate at best.
To start with, Charter only included two premium movie channels in HDTV at the beginning of 2005. But these two movie channels are already available in non-HDTV to their HDTV customer if the customer had chosen Charter's full movie package. This looks like the Charter HDTV customer is paying for these premium channels twice.
However on the plus side, Charter's HDTV comes with a digital cable decoder box that provides the customer with the option of using component output cables or the DVI-HDTV multi-pin output cable for the reception of High-Def signals. These connections allows Charter's HDTV customer to receive non-HDTV movies for clearer pictures while allowing them to be viewed in the 16:9 aspect ratio on their HDTV wide-screen television set. This is a real side benefit for the HDTV customers that use Charter's service. But again, these are not the Hi-Def HDTV pictures you bought your HDTV set to watch.
HDTV Programming - example of one cable company's lineup
One of the six current providers of HDTV programming for Charter is HDNET that provides two HDTV channels. One channel is used for special events in HDTV reshowing auto races, soccer, basketball, and hockey games as "Special Encore Presentations" or programs that are "Relived." You'll also find excellent concerts that were originally recorded live that are now provided as special encore presentations by HDNET. The other HDNET channel provides content that includes older movies 24/7.
Yet the hottest and best part of HDNET's programming schedule is the concerts with stars such as Barry Manilow, Boss Scaggs, Willy Nelson to only mention a few, along with Broadway shows, our recently watching a 2000 recording in Hi-Def of the New York Broadway play, Smokey Joe's Cafe.
This play was the final performance of the show, featuring the songs of Leiber and Stoller, recorded live in high definition at Broadway's Virginia Theater. Smokey Joe's Cafe featured the original Tony Award-nominated cast in a nonstop musical celebration. It received a Grammy Award, as well as seven Tony Award nominations, including one for Best Musical. We stood up from our couch and cheered with the audience, feeling we were sitting with them in the theater via the outstanding realistic picture provided by our Sony 57-inch diagonal rear-projection set using the DVI jack from Charter's digital cable box.
One of the other surprises we had on HDNET was their transmission of the Republican National Convention, at the time our just purchasing our HDTV television. The quality of the picture and sound were beyond our comprehension, images making us feel we had a seat in the convention, while president Bush literally almost stood in our living room. I know a few people wouldn't want that, but this HDTV television goes beyond expectations when providing literal live as-it-happens programming.
HDNET's mission seems to be to provide HDTV programming that will help fill in the content gap that has been created by the inability of local cable companies and other HDTV programming providers to make the deals necessary to bring more High-Def channels into homes that are HDTV capable.
For instance, and while obviously on a tight budget, HDNET brings to the wide-screen format the excellent entertainment that had been created for another generation. In this case, the content is represented by musicals and award-winning movies that had been seen in theaters by the moms and dads of today's Xers, the Xers seeing these movies for the first time only on small television screens, the original eye-popping scenes reduced in to unimpressive postage-stamp images.
But now HDNET is bringing some of these movies to life again to the wide-screen . . . that is the HDTV wide-screen by showing classic movies like the Music Man, Camelot, and My Fair Lady that find themselves relived up on the large silver screen, this silver screen located on the front of HDTV wide-screen home television sets.
The impact of these excellent musicals should not be underestimated. While surfing on night, we came across "My Fair Lady" in wide-screen. We were ready to go to bed at the time and caught this movie on HDNET, but couldn't stop watching the HDTV wide-screen effect. We acted with amazement as if we were watching it for the very first time. I guess compared to a 27-inch diagonal screen, we were.
Click here to see a sample of a day's worth of movies along with daily programming schedule for HDNET.
But as more programming is becoming suddenly available from the satellite and cable providers at the end of 2007, we had hoped that HDNET would continue to fill this shrinking vacuum for more variety of HDTV programming for the entire family. It had depended on using inexpensive older content that had looked great on the wide-screen, such as the original Superboy series (Smallville.) But then it took a turn to different programming such as a late-night show it had called the Sex Files, and another with models who run around places like Alaska in their bathing suits, the series called Bikini Destinations. While this is interesting content for viewers who are new to the concept of HDTV wide-screen television, the programs only illustrated the capability of their wide-screen television to provide impressive pictures in 1080i High-Definition resolution. But quality of image needs to be match by quality of programming.
Cuban instead has now taken HDNET into a darker side of HDTV viewing, now providing an outlet for the outrageous annual San Francisco costume party where there are no rules so you can watch people in 1080i walk around half naked or dressed as a human phallic. But then more disturbing is his allowing this dark side to enter into the Sci-fi programming where kids would go, his recent Odyssey having the space travelers coming back in time only to be heard to use the "F" word as if in the repeat mode, one program using it so many times we lost count after fifty for the 50-minute program. It was "F this" and "F that," one F bomb coming after the other less than every 60 seconds. Why? Ask Cuban. He started out his life selling trash bags and now he has instead chosen to fill them. It's a sad day when billionaires decide to spend their money in a way to send the dark side of their personal values into homes across the world.
We would love to see for example, (hint to HDNET for our 57-inch diagonal HDTV wide-screen television), former movies that had once shined on the big screen but now are either hard to rent on DVD or younger adult viewers do not even know to ask for them . . . titles that include Mr. Roberts, Portrait of Jenny, The Egg and I, Hellzapoppin, From Here to Eternity, The Producers, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or Pal Joey. Then there are the special effects movies like the Thirteenth Floor, Twister, and 2001 Space Odyssey. Add to this the classic Sci-fi movies such as Forbidden Plant, The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the Day of the Triffids, and you begin to assemble a list that can come alive again on the large wide-screen home television, many viewers seeing these some of these flicks for the very first time.
While new HDTV shows with ladies running around in their swim suits in the snow can be entertaining, they quickly grow old for viewers who are used to being challenged by excellent content that is already available on normal television channels. HDTV television content needs to evolve to successful programming that already comes from proven content providers such as the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, The Animal Planet Channel, The Learning Channel, the Military Channel, and the Science Channel along with many more including sporting events such as Monday Night Football and CBS and FOX NFL Playoffs. But of all these only one turned up for us on Charter, Discovery HD Theater.
We discovered while watching Cuban as a guest on Cavuto on Business on the Fox News Channel (FNC), that Cuban invested his own money into HDNET, filling a gap that other providers had seemed to want to overcharge for, their HDTV signals never reaching the back of the sets while Cuban's product is an HDTV standard in many HDTV homes. Since many cable providers didn't have the subscribers to justify the added expense that other providers want, HDNET is very affordable, and to Cuban's credit had helped at the time to get HDTV to finally get its feet off the ground.
Mark had looked like a standup guy to us, coming from an everyday working family that resided in Pittsburgh, PA. A bio reports he sold garbage bags door-to-door at twelve years old and later put himself through college. We had respected that kind of diversity in living, doing what you have to do without worrying about how much the other guy has. But now as he provides content to fill those bags he had sold is troubling, sending HDTV onto a slippery slope, one that could cause a revolution in the opposite direction from families saying enough is enough. You can check out Cuban's bio for yourself on Askmen.com.
Moving on, another HDTV content provider for Charter is the ESPN. It usually has one NFL Football game in HDTV on Thursday nights during the NFL season and a few college football games in HDTV during the weekend. But when ESPN is not transmitting their programming in HDTV, their non-HDTV picture is reduced to an annoying 4:5 standard TV picture projected onto the 16:9 screen through the use of vertical bars on each side of the image. I ironically solved this problem by tuning to the ESPN channel from the cable box, which again I had already paid for.
Since I had used the better HDTV DVI inputs from Charter's digital cable box, I was able to see ESPN's standard program in the 16:9 screen format. In fact, I get all the cable channels reformatted into the 16:9 format on my advanced Sony HDTV set.
One good point about ESPN is that it will begin to carry the NFL Monday Night Football schedule in 2006 in Hi-Def. I say a good point because Charter doesn't carry an ABC Network channel in Hi-Def, so we'll have to suffer only one more year of Monday Night Football without a HDTV picture.
The other HDTV channels that are part of Charter's very limited HDTV service are the Atlanta Braves Channel (when a game is played), two local affiliate station out of Greenville, South Carolina, NBC and CBS (HD only when available), the Discovery HD Theater, Universal HD, and TNT HD, both featuring daily programming in HD 24/7.
The Atlanta Braves Channel is annoying color bars 24/7 when the season is over and a static Braves logo on between games that are being played, which of course is not most of the time. I consider that a waste of a HDTV channel during the winter.
While Charter is adding more HDTV channels, the selection of ten channels for a HDTV set that costs more than $2,000 is discouraging.
In writing to the CEO of Charter Communications about the poor selection of HDTV content, I noted that at 2:20 p.m., on a Sunday afternoon, the Charter's HDTV programming available for viewing on my 57" diagonal screen was as follows:
I haven't counted the total channels on Charter's Communication's Cable System, but I assume the HDTV portion represents less than 10% of the available cable programming not including pay-per-view.
HDTV needs more than a few duplicated movie channels to be successful. It needs a variety of exciting content and fun entertainment, especially in the area of live programming such as sports, concerts, live events, and theater. Without it, while HDTV is still not a bust, it will obviously take much longer for it to grab the interest of the marketplace as a serious new format worth investing in.
Already, the FCC has realized 2006 is not a realistic date to stop transmission of NTSC programming, having assumed that 80% of consumers would have purchased a HDTV television by then. Why would they even think that looking at the limited programming HDTV customers had access to? Talk about a government agency totally out of sync with what is going on beyond the windows of their white ivory towers.
If you call a Charter representative on the phone and ask about future HDTV programming, you'll probably get the run around statement management has obviously provided for them to say. "Oh, but we are adding more as they become available," they told me in late 2004. But I think maybe not, the answer sounding more like an excuse than an explanation. I really thought Charter was using a carrot-on-the-stick to make HDTV users think things were quickly going to get better, not trusting their customers to understand the truth, that it is really not their fault.
What Charter, and possibly other cable providers are not telling you, and I don't know why they won't, is that these yet-to-be-added HDTV channels are not free to them.
So in turn they are not going to provide them to their HDTV customers until budgets are agreed to with EACH new HDTV program provider, be it ABC's Monday Night Football, or CBS, FOX, WB, WGN, PBS, and etc.
This translates to Charter really not being able to financially absorb the huge added content costs to promote the new technology. So while the manufacturers pump out the new HDTV hardware, there is basically almost nothing to watch in the thin atmosphere of higher 1080i resolution. Not to blame Charter and other cable systems, these HDTV content providers are greedy and should not charge anything to cable systems, helping the HDTV format get off the ground.
But, like you read in the Beta vs. VHS Format War in the last chapter, nothing changes, does it?
Because of this greed with HDTV providers, the FCC has peeled back its ruling of eliminating the broadcast transmissions of the NTSC format. As mentioned above, it was scheduled in 2006 based on an 80% consumer population in America owning a HDTV television set. Since we are just entering 2005, the FCC obviously seeing the handwriting on the wall and moving the ruling to 2009. But I bet we'll be lucky to see an 80% marketshare by even 2012, after understanding what it takes to move a format into not just mainstream, but 80% of the television public! Silly children, these HDTV content providers, being watched by an FCC that seems to have no idea what's going on in the marketplace.
Charter could pass-on-the-cost of programming to their HDTV customers, but currently only a small percentage uses the service that Charter provides, upgrading them to the Digital HDTV cable box that Charter offers for $7.00 a month for adding a few HDTV channels to the customer's programming options.
But when you add up their full cable service with their movie channel package along with the option of broadband access to the Internet, the monthly cost for the total cable features to the customer, who is already paying an added monthly cost for the poor choices of HDTV channels, is getting very close to $150 a month as of the fall of 2005. And that does not include any pay-for-view selections during the month. The cable bill is therefore getting close to an every day new car payment. I think this is referred to in marketing as a glass ceiling, and Charter knows it has reached it, as is probably the case with many other cable franchises across the country.
So there is not much to cheer about if you're going to spend thousands of dollars for a new wide-screen HDTV set to upgrade to the cable providers poor offering of HDTV programming.
Finally, there is another option for receiving television programming from the provider DirecTV, which Charter Communications seems to always advertise as bumbling idiots. However, we signed onto DirecTV in the fall of 2005 through their NFL promotion to also receive all NFL football games. Click here if you want to read what we discovered about DirecTV vs. what Charter had advertised about their services. It just might just raise the hair on the back of your neck.
To see what local channels you might receive (based on terrain around your home), you can go to antennaweb.org run by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). But there is no guarantee, the site saying we could get them when we couldn't.
Charter had run an advertising blitz calling satellite providers like these "a disease" using an ad with the aging actor, Dan Akroyd, the ad probably pissing off satellite companies. But at least now you know why I say "truth is knowledge," and why I recommend HDTV television owners to check out Voom for more information on their total program package if not being provided by their cable provider.
Finally, back to basic cable programming, there's one wonderful package that comes with Charter that we just love, and you will, too. It's called Charter-On-Demand, and available on our Charter's cable box on Channel 999. They take the customer's entire movie package and drop it into a On-Demand Format where currently running movies can be searched by content providers such as HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime, by alpha, by title.
Once you find the movie you want, (the list also available by category), you simply press play on your remote control and the movie starts from the very beginning. That's what's called On-Demand. Need to go check on dinner? Stop the movie. Ready to watch it again? Press play. Need to run out on an errand you forgot about? No problem. Press stop. When you get back home, go back to Channel 999 and find your movie in a cue of programs the system knows you have watched. Click on the movie and it resumes where you left off.
That's it. Now that's fantastic for us 16:9 wide-screen users, eh?
Concerning HDTV on-air broadcast programming, this subject will come up in a later chapter that discusses connecting HDTV signals to your HDTV set. This on-air broadcast station programming option only concerns those customers who live in a large city where signal quality could be excellent to good, one or two channels marginal because they are compromised by tall buildings. HDTV or no HDTV, poor signals still come under the rule of garbage in, garbage out.
Finally, I have to admit DVD movies played back in the DVD's Enhanced 480p Mode (p meaning progressive scanning on the screen), are excellent, while many movies played back through the cable companies digital decoder box provide excellent images too, all with some form of stereo sound. While some channels will have a bit more noise in the picture than others, cable movie packages have dozens of movies running at one time.
So if you do watch a lot of DVD rental movies, such as from Netflix* or Blockbuster, I highly recommend the wide-screen format with a HDTV-Ready feature treated as a waiting option when you or your cable company decide to move into the world of HDTV viewing.
Important Notice on 1080(p) and (i) and HD Programming.
Note: Click here for Peter Putman's articles.
Go to Chapter 8, "HDTV Viewing Formats"
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Archived Article from 2009