Satellite Broadcasters Will Be First with HDTV

Satellite broadcasting will be first out of the chute with HDTV. While local broadcasters scramble to comply with FCC mandates to be HD-ready by 1999, satellite services are almost there. On August 25, U.S. Satellite Broadcasting (USSB) announced that it will lease transponder space from DirecTV at the 95°W fixed location so it can begin transmitting HDTV previews. DirecTV will also beam HD programming from the same satellite.

Later this fall, USSB will offer previews of HDTV programming through its network of video dealers. Many demonstrations will be offered in full digital surround-sound as well. The previews are courtesy of Home Box Office, which plans to deliver HDTV programming early next year. Curious consumers are expected to flood into showrooms to see the new technology first-hand. Early adopters can expect to pay thousands for first-generation HD television sets, but prices should decline sharply as more products move into the market later in the year.

A natural fit for HDTV, satellite services can reach most of North America with a high-quality signal at relatively low cost. Local broadcasters must attach new transmitters to already overloaded towers or build new towers at extraordinary expense, fighting municipal and environmental restrictions all the way. They must also shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for new digital studio equipment, which must run side-by-side with its analog counterpart during the transitional phase into full-time digital television. Industry experts say the typical large urban station will spend millions making the change. By contrast, the cost to satellite services is relatively low, and the benefits to consumers are immediate.

"Market innovators from the start," is how DirecTV President Eddy Hartenstein characterizes the satellite-television industry. "We announced our HDTV initiative in January of this year, and the addition of USSB and HBO once again affirms our collective leadership position in the industry," he says. More than 26,000 dealers nationwide sell the 18" DBS dishes and receivers, which are compatible with both USSB and DirecTV.

DirecTV, a division of Hughes Electronics Corporation, has more than 3.9 million subscribers. HBO and its sister service, Cinemax, are divisions of Time Warner Entertainment and reach over 33 million subscribers in the US.