DBS Delivering More HDTV

Direct broadcast satellite services EchoStar and DirecTV are expanding HDTV programming and hardware options for their subscribers. The news should help boost subscriber growth for both companies, whose combined viewers now total more than 20 million.

At the CEDIA Expo held in Indianapolis in early September, EchoStar announced that by mid-month its DISH Network would add a new group of HDTV channels. For an additional $9.99/month or $109.89/year, DISH subscribers will be able to receive Discovery HD Theater, ESPN HD, HDNet and HDNet Movies, in addition to HBO-HD, Showtime HD, and DISH-On-Demand pay-per-view high-def movies. The service also makes CBS-HD available in some markets. The addition of the new channels will let DISH Network match the offerings of competitor DirecTV, according to the announcement.

Beginning November 1, EchoStar will offer a full HD video system, including a choice of a 34" CRT monitor or 40" CRT rear-projection set, both made by Thomson for EchoStar. The $1499 "Super DISH HD System" will include a DISH 811 HDTV/ATSC DTV decoder—"the first affordable high definition receiver/decoder"—and new elliptical single-dish antenna.

The complete system will let subscribers receive all the company's standard definition and HD satellite programming. For an additional $700, DISH customers will be able to upgrade to EchoStar's combo HDTV decoder/digital video recorder, the DISH Player DVR-921, which will feature a 250GB hard disk drive capable of recording 25 hours of high-def programming. The DVR-921 should be available late in October, at a suggested price of $999. EchoStar also recently announced that it had delivered its one-millionth satellite receiver/DVR combination.

DirecTV is also promising to deliver more HDTV—if the merger with News Corporation is approved. On September 25, company chairman Eddy Hartenstein announced that should the merger get the regulatory nod, DirecTV could offer as many as 300 local and national HDTV channels by 2008.

Speaking to a group of satellite TV dealers at the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association's (SBCA) Retailer Rally, Hartenstein promised that soon DirecTV will be able to offer local stations in 30 additional markets, thanks to a new DirecTV 7S spot-beam satellite scheduled for launch in 2004. The merged DirecTV/News Corporation intends to launch new satellites between 2006 and 2008, according to a September 24 filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The new birds would give the company coverage over all 210 TV markets in the US. Such coverage would coincide with the deployment of at least one million satellite receivers annually, Hartenstein stated.

On Thursday September 25, news of the possibility of a DirecTV/News Corporation merger hammered the stock of TiVo, Inc., which dropped 17% to $8.14/share. One likely outcome would be the deletion of TiVo products from DirecTV's offerings. TiVo and DirecTV have had mutually beneficial relations for the past four years.