Technology Editor Discovers High Def on Cable TV!

Photo by Tony Cordoza
Check it out: Getting HDTV on Cable
Rumors began circulating in the fall of 2001 among the more technologically advanced New York City customers of Time Warner Cable (TWC) that there was a secret HDTV waiting list hidden from the customer-service representatives, the people who usually answer the phones when the company's formidable automated system is breached. In fact, for many months, if a TWC subscriber (like me) asked about adding HDTV service, the reps thought he meant HGTV, the Home & Garden Television channel. As far as high definition went, they didn't have a clue.
It didn't help that there was only one TWC employee for the entire city who was qualified to install HDTV-capable set-top boxes. But even if there'd been more workers trained to make high-def house calls, there was a severe shortage of boxes. That's probably why there wasn't any information about HDTV channels in the splashy flyers enclosed with my monthly cable bill. Why should TWC put itself in the position of promoting a service it could deliver only to a select few? Nevertheless, high-def signals for HBO, Showtime, CBS, and NBC programs were already coursing through the fiber-optic cables underneath many of the city's neighborhoods.

I'd heard about TWC's high-def cable box from two other journalists. One got his name put on the top of the secret list after interviewing a top executive at AOL Time Warner, but the other gave me a special phone number to call. When I tried it early last December, the pleasant woman who answered asked if my apartment building was wired for digital cable (which TWC calls "DTV") and if I had an HDTV set. "Yes on both counts," I replied. She took down my name and said she'd call me after others already on the list were served. And when could I expect a call? "April," she said.

Anxious to get hooked up, I called her back in February to see how far along the list I'd come. Since the HDNet Olympics coverage was being carried by NBC, and satellite isn't an option for my urban-canyon digs, I asked if there was any way I could get an HDTV box in time for the games. "I'll even pick it up and install it myself," I offered. "That isn't possible," she said. "We'll call you in April."

The call did, indeed, come that month. But, as fate would have it, I was in the throes of moving to a new apartment. I figured I'd simply have the high-def box installed in my new abode. Not so fast.

"I can't make an appointment until after you have your cable service installed," she said. Fortunately, I was able to arrange to have a digital cable box and a Road Runner cable modem installed in my new place the day after I moved in. The day after that I called the high-def lady and arranged to swap the "old" box for an HDTV-capable Scientific Atlanta 2000HD box. The box had component-video outputs, a digital audio output, and an inactive Ethernet port. The good news was that I now had the potential to watch four channels of high-definition images. The bad news was that the box crashed four times in four weeks. Even though the power LED was on, the picture and sound would disappear and the remote control wouldn't work. Unable to switch the unit off from the front panel, I pulled the power cord. Plugging the box back in brought it to life again, but when I called the HDTV lady to complain, she said the box was already obsolete and I needed to swap it for the Scientific Atlanta 3100HD (shown in photo).

"How's next Monday between 8 and 12?" she asked. "Fine," I sighed. Of course, given the 4-hour window, Cable Guy No. 3 didn't show up until 5 minutes before noon, and even then he had to go back to his van because he didn't know he was supposed to install the new box. The upgrade box didn't have an Ethernet port, but it did have a USB port and a card slot on its front panel. On other cable systems, the slot accommodates a smart card that can be debited for pay-per-view programs or used for conditional access; the USB port could replace a separate cable modem. In New York City, though, TWC has no plans to activate either feature.

The 3100HD cable box has an infrared (IR) blaster port and composite-video output for use with a VCR. TWC's electronic program guide (EPG) can be set to send a signal to your VCR to record a program. However, if you use a hard-disk recorder (as I do), there's no IR support from the cable box. Instead, you set up the IR blaster from your ReplayTV or TiVo recorder to signal the cable box to change channels. Meanwhile, TWC announced in July that it expected to offer cable boxes with built-in hard-disk recording by the end of the year. But there's no word yet on when it plans to make available cable boxes that offer both recording and HDTV capability.

I don't have to pay extra for the HDTV channels in New York City since I already pay $112 a month for TWC's DTV/Road Runner package, which provides 362 channels including four premium groups, 40 stereo Music Choice channels, and lots of pay-per-view channels. Figure about $75 without the Road Runner Internet service.

My current cable-HDTV channels are HBO-HD, WCBS-DT, Showtime HD, and WNBC-DT, though TWC's program guide has placeholders for the Fox, ABC, and PBS affiliates, too. Considering its nearly full prime-time schedule of HDTV programming, CBS-DT via cable is a good thing, but it's also redundant with what I could pull in using an antenna and my own tuner. CBS has the only off-air HDTV signal you can easily get in Manhattan these days because it broadcasts from the Empire State Building. (Other stations began their high-def broadcasting from the World Trade Center just months before the 9/11 terrorist attack last year, and those transmission facilities still haven't been replaced.)

My first evening with the high-def cable box got off to a frustrating start. All four high-def channels were showing standard-definition, 4:3-format programs upconverted to 1080i. But as I was about to call it a night, I switched to HBO-HD, and my jaw dropped - there was Forrest Gump in 1080i widescreen, with Forrest riding his lawnmower back and forth over discrete blades of grass. Eureka!

More than any other type of programming I watched and listened to over the next few months, movies in high definition are what evoked a sense of awe. The machine-gun car chase in Swordfish on HBO-HD, with Dolby Digital 5.1-channel surround sound, was just exhilarating. Visually, a movie on HDTV is to DVD what DVD is to VHS. You just have to see the difference to appreciate how far TV has come. And even though a growing number of people use a direct satellite service to get premium high-def movie channels, some 70% of U.S. households are hooked up to cable TV, and that's how most of us will be getting HDTV in the future.

Pictures on the high-def cable channels aren't always perfect. Several times per evening, they'll blink black for a second. But mosaic-type picture artifacts are rare compared with how many I've seen in over-the-air HDTV. Most important, I don't have to futz with an antenna, a constant source of frustration during the year before I was able to pull high-def from cable. The program guide doesn't always work when I'm tuned to the high-def channels, which a TWC spokesman attributed to an incompatibility between the 1080i format and the guide's graphics engine. He said TWC was working to fix the problem.

Clearly, I wish my cable system would deliver signals for all the high-def channels listed in its program guide as well as add a few more. If it's a matter of dwindling capacity, plenty of crummy channels most of us wouldn't miss are hogging bandwidth. It's a shame HDTV isn't on cable TV's fast track. Once cable operators reach viewers with a choice of high-definition channels, more and more Americans will finally see for themselves how HDTV takes television to the next level.

Check it out: Getting HDTV on Cable