Cablers slow to hook up HDTV

Threat of dropping nets has operators on hold

NEW YORK — HBO’s high-definition TV programming — when it goes out by satellite early in 1999 — will probably reach only dish owners subscribing to satellite distributor USSB.

Stan Hubbard, president and CEO of USSB, says that while his satellite service is ready to launch HDTV from day one, cable operators are dragging their heels at devising the set-top boxes that will allow subscribers to get high-definition TV signals.

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, William Kennard, wrote a stinging letter to the National Cable TV Assn., the cable operators’ lobbying arm, earlier this month demanding that cable systems speed up their work on creating a box that would funnel the digital bits into a TV set capable of displaying a high-def picture.

Sources say USSB is spending $3 million or so to improve the technology and lease the satellite capacity to start transmitting HBO’s high-def signal in the first quarter of 1999 to USSB subscribers who lay out the $7,000 to $10,000 for an HDTV set.

While not commenting on the price, Hubbard said, “The beauty of our HBO offering is that we won’t have to cut into our subscribers’ current choice of channels,” referring to the 225 channels that USSB and its sister satellite distributor DirecTV have at their disposal to accommodate the extra bandwidth gobbled up by the HDTV signal.

By contrast, many cable operators like John Malone, chairman of Tele-Communications Inc., the second-largest multi-system operator in the U.S., say that they’d have to jettison a number of cable networks to make way for the extra digital needs of every TV station in a given market.

Various sources say that threat of dropping cable networks is a key reason why operators are balking at creating the technology that would introduce HDTV into subscribers’ homes.

The reason HBO has become the first cable network to announce that it has some HDTV programming on its drawing boards is that “HBO is a movie service,” says Hubbard. “It’s not all that hard to dub an HDTV signal off a 35mm print.”

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