HBO plans high-def startup by 1998

NEW YORK — HBO has become the first cable network to announce that it will deliver a high-definition-television feed of its network, possibly as early as the summer of 1998.

Mid-1998 is also when the first high-definition TV sets are slated to go on sale in appliance stores, at a retail price that will start at $2,500 a set. As many as 23 big-city TV stations could also be transmitting at least some programming in HDTV in summer ’98, as mandated by the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC’s timetable proclaims that by the fall of 1999, 50% or more of TV set owners in the U.S. should be getting at least three high-def TV stations. This blueprint, industry experts say, is unlikely to be met so speedily because of the high cost to TV stations of conversion from analog to digital high-def.

An HBO spokeswoman declined to reveal how much it will cost HBO to send out a high-def feed. But since 70% of its schedule consists of theatrical movies and expensive made-fors, which are already filmed in the widescreen, 16-to-9 high-def aspect ratio, the conversion will be a lot easier than HBO’s having to start from scratch with high-cost equipment.

But HBO faces a huge barrier: It’s totally dependent on cable operators and direct-broadcast-satellite distributors to get the high-def HBO service into subscribers’ homes. Most cable operators are planning to use digital-compression technology not for high-def (which eats up five dial positions on the broadband pipe) but for more channels of programming, such as pay-per-view movies, out-of-market professional sports events and niche cable networks.

If cable operators and DBS distributors shun HBO’s high-def feed, sources say HBO will probably not lay out the big bucks to buy all of the equipment necessary to record and transmit programming like boxing matches, documentaries and regular series such as “The Larry Sanders Show.”

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