Dishing up some HDTV
DISH currently carries 10 of the original HD channels from the now defunct VOOM satellite HD service, and in 2006 will push that number to 15. That's a lot of VOOM! In addition to those channels, DISH is adding ESPN2 HD and Universal HD to a lineup that already includes ESPN HD, HBO HD, HDNet and HDNet Movies, Showtime HD and TNT HD. But DISH's biggest coup in 2006 will be the addition of major network affiliates (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, etc.) in HD in "up to 50" local markets, including Boston, Chicago, LA, and New York, which will launch the initiative in February.
While DISH's premium channel HD lineup has been strong, CBS has been the only major network the satellite provider has offered in HD over its satellite system (customers within range have been able to pull network affiliates in over-the –air in HD). DirecTV has been offering CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox in HD via satellite for over a year.
Existing DISH customers with MPEG2 boxes will continue to enjoy the current HD channel lineup, and DISH is offering an upgrade package to existing customers wishing to step up to the new ViP series gear required to decode the new MPEG4 HD channels. Two ViP series set-top boxes will be available, the ViP211 at $49.99, and the $299.99 ViP622 MPEG4 HD DVR. The ViP6122 can record up to 25 hours of HD, and can record two HD channels at once while standard def is being watched in another room. Both the ViP211 and ViP6122 support MPEG2 and MPEG4 signals. The ViP211 is available now, while the ViP6122 is scheduled for the first quarter of this year, which means people in Boston, Chicago, LA and New York might have to decide if they want the DVR functionality badly enough to wait for it come February!
The most surprising thing to me about DirecTV's announcement that it will have local HD network affiliates carried in 36 markets by the first half of 2006 was that 12 of those markets already launched last November, and one of those markets is the one I’m in! My wife and I have been loyal DirecTV customers since 1997, and have a special preferred customer card to prove it. We have been subscribers to as much HD content as DirecTV offers for years. We get tons of little messages in our DirecTV mailbox, but not a one of them let us know that our local San Francisco bay area HD network affiliate stations have been available since last year!
To elaborate on this a little more, DirecTV customers have been offered network affiliates in HD in certain geographic areas as long as certain criteria are met. For example, where we live there is no cable operator at all, and off-air isn't possible either. So, we've been getting west coast ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates in HD, but not our "locals" from San Francisco. Now, we can get them, but there are a couple of catches.
As with DISH, current subscribers to DirecTV's MPEG2 HD channels will still get what they're paying for. Required to receive the new HD locals are an upgraded 5-LNB satellite dish, and a new MPEG4 capable receiver. DirecTV has a couple of sweet deals on the MPEG4 capable H20 receiver and satellite dish. Calling DirecTV and asking for "customer retention," I was offered the new H20 and a 5-LNB dish for the $99 install fee for the dish. Buying the receiver alone through a local retailer costs $200, but a $200 rebate makes it a freebie (excepting the tax). Requirements of the rebate are that the user must send in a DirecTV bill showing activation of DirecTV programming with HD service. It's not clear whether an existing DirecTV HD customer could buy this box and send in a current bill and complete the rebate.
While the potential of a free MPEG4 box, and an inexpensive dish/install looks good on paper the catch is that the new dish won't work with current DirecTV receivers, including the DirecTV HD TiVo I paid $650 for just last year, and am totally addicted to! DirecTV's HR20 set-top box will have HD DVR capability, but won't be available until mid-year. I want my locals in HD very badly, but I've watched more HD in the last several months than I've watched in the last several years thanks to the HD TiVo. I guess I'm going to have to wait and hope the deal for the new DVR is as sweet as those for the new MPEG4 set-top box.
Another tidbit on the DVR is that it will not be powered by TiVo, but will use the same interface technology of the currently available DirecTV Plus DVR. DISH is now claiming 12 million subscribers and DirecTV 15 million. HD's potential coverage area is expanding right along with the lineups!