Thursday, March 27, 2008

HDTV programming compared

Antenna vs. cable vs. satellite


With MPEG-4 receivers, satellite offers significantly more national HD channels than cable; HD DVRs typically superior to cable.
Monthly fees; still need over-the-air antennas to get some local channels, such as PBS HD and MyTV; may not offer RSNs in HD; usually requires purchase of set-top box.
With MPEG-4 compression making numerous HD channels a reality, satellite is the best way to get the most HD programming.

MPEG-4 technology allows satellite providers to offer more HD channels than most cable services.
For the past few years, HD via satellite has been a promising yet frustrating way to get high-definition shows. By subscribing to DirecTV or Dish Network, viewers living in the most far-flung areas of the continental United States--and those who'd rather not pay for cable--could get their fair share of HD. However, because bandwidth is at a premium and because each satellite must broadcast the literally hundreds of local channels separately, DirecTV and Dish Network initially stumbled when it came to offering local HD stations--that is, the major network affiliates of ABC, NBC, Fox, and NBC, that carry your local news and commercials.

Until recently, the only way to get high-definition local channels through your satellite receiver was with an over-the-air antenna add-on. To help compensate, satellite providers have offered a handful of national HD channels, such as the East and West Coast feeds of NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS, but they don't have local news and ads, and they're legally available only in certain metropolitan areas and in rural areas that fall outside the broadcast range of terrestrial digital TV transmitters.

Satellite HD: A sea change

All of that has changed with the arrival of MPEG-4 AVC, a video compression technology that crams more than twice as much HD video into the same amount of bandwidth as the current MPEG-2 technology. Combine MPEG-4 with the deployment of new satellites--DirecTV launched the first of five new satellites in May 2005 and has one more slated for March 2008, while Dish Network launched another satellite in February 2006 and plans to launch "at least two more" in 2008 according to CEO Charlie Ergen--and suddenly there's much more bandwidth in the skies.

With big changes like MPEG-4 come big sacrifices. Older DirecTV and Dish Network dishes and set-top boxes aren't compatible with MPEG-4 services. DirecTV and Dish Network plan to broadcast the existing MPEG-2 HD lineup; for the time being, but subscribers with older HD equipment will have to upgrade to watch the new local and national HD channels. Luckily, both satellite carriers offer discounts to make the transition less painful.


DirecTV: To get DirecTV's MPEG-4 channels, you'll need an H20 or H21 HD receiver, or an HR20 or HR21 high-definition DVR, as well as a dish that can receive signals from five different orbital positions (typically free with a new installation). FYI, the 20 and 21 models of both receivers are basically identical save for coloration and the 20s' capability to connect to an antenna to get over-the-air ATSC broadcasts.

Dish Network ViP722 HD DVR
Dish Network: For Dish Network MPEG-4 HD service, you'll need an MPEG-4-compatible satellite dish and a receiver or DVR. Dish offers numerous solutions, starting with the basic ViP211 HD receiver and the ViP612 HD DVR. The company also makes three units--the ViP222 receiver and ViP622 and ViP722 DVRs--that can feed two TVs simultaneously, one standard-definition and one high-definition.


The arrival of MPEG-4 means big changes for the amount of local HD programming available from DirecTV and Dish Network. As of February 2008, DirecTV offers local HD programming to 77 U.S. cities, covering 74 percent of all U.S. households. Dish Network's local coverage currently lags behind DirecTV with just over 50 percent of U.S. markets, although the company promises 100 local markets and 85 percent coverage by year's end.

One important issue to keep in mind, however, is that neither DirecTV nor Dish Network broadcast all local channels in HD. Dish Network offers the top four networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC), and DirecTV offers the top four networks plus MyTV and PBS (but only in some markets). Meanwhile regional sports networks in HD aren't necessarily offered on satellite, whereas most cable providers offer RSNs in their local markets. See the cable section for details.

While HD local channel selection is generally better on cable than satellite, DirecTV and Dish Network each offer significantly more national HD channels than just about every cable provider. Excluding RSNs and pay-per-view channels, as of March 2008 DirecTV offers 59 national HD channels and Dish Network has 47.

Voom's HD channels are now available on Dish Network.
Voom's HD channels are now available on Dish Network.
We break down those channel lineups in-depth later in the guide, but for now a couple of things are worth noting. Dish's channel selection includes 15 all-HD channels that once were operated by the Voom. While "all-HD" sounds pretty great, bear in mind that none of these channels offer typical programming (for better or for worse) and they all repeat shows much more frequently than typical channels. However, some lesser-known gems can be found on the movie channels, and some offbeat shows on the specialty networks are watchable. But don't expect tier-one programming in most cases on these channels.

DirecTV, on the other hand, is the only place for the HD versions of favorite networks such as Bravo, CNN, Comedy Central, FX, and SciFi. Sure, most of these channels don't show HD all the time, but more often than not popular shows will be in high-definition. That's a huge advantage, and while we suspect Dish will try to catch up by offering these channels sometime in the future, they haven't done so yet.

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