Voom satellite service giving HDTV a boost

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Sean Mota

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By Mike Langberg

Mercury News


High-definition television is finally something more than an over-priced technology demonstration project, now that TV and cable channels are creating a critical mass of HD programming for viewers to watch.

A new satellite TV service called Voom raises the bar even higher, offering 36 channels of HD -- about three times more than competing cable and satellite providers.

All this is nearly miraculous, given HD's disastrous birth back in November 1998. At the time, HD sets cost a ridiculous $10,000, only a few hours of HD shows were offered each week and broadcasters seemed reluctant to create more.

Hardware prices have since declined steadily, and HD sets now cost as little as $500 -- although you'll want to spend at least $1,000 for a screen size big enough to fully appreciate HD's crystal-clear pictures.

The programming repertoire has improved more slowly, but there are now enough choices to please even the most discriminating viewer.

Consider this week's core prime-time hours of 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., from Sunday through Saturday. HD programs are available on at least one of the three networks committed to HD -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- in every one of those 21 prime-time hours. For 13 hours, HD is available on two or all three of the networks.

The two biggest TV events of the week are high def: ABC showed the movie ``Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'' in HD on Sunday, with a repeat Saturday; and NBC's final episode of the sitcom ``Frasier'' shows in HD on Thursday.

Indeed, almost all network weekly sitcoms and dramas are now in HD, as are many sports broadcasts. The biggest missing pieces are news and reality shows, such as ``Dateline NBC'' and ``Survivor.''

Fox has been the skunk at the party, refusing to make the move to HD. But the network has now relented and promises to start partial HD broadcasting this fall. The Public Broadcasting System was also an early HD supporter, with an extensive HD lineup.

There's been an equal boom in HD cable channels, many of which are also available via satellite. Seasonal and regional HD sports channels are also springing up, as well as pay-per-view movies and special events in HD.

We're still a long way off from the day when everything on broadcast TV, cable and satellite is in HD. Nor are there enough choices today that I expect many viewers will watch HD only.

But, as I said, we've reached the point of critical mass. As viewers come to expect the better-than-movie visual images and full digital surround-sound of HD, they'll watch fewer non-HD shows. This will motivate producers to create more and more HD programming.

Voom (www.voom.com) could be a big contributor to this snowball trend.

Launched Oct. 15, Voom at first looked like a loser. The start-up service faced two entrenched competitors -- DirecTV and Dish Network. Voom's receiver package was hugely expensive at $749 up front. And the service lacked many of the basic non-HD cable channels that viewers expect from a satellite service, such as Comedy Central, CNN, ESPN, MTV, Nickelodeon, TNT, VH1 and the Weather Channel.

Voom still faces stiff competition, but the other problems have been largely resolved.

The receiver package, which includes the dish and a roof antenna for local HD broadcasts, now costs only $499. More important, Voom until May 31 is offering the receiver package for an ongoing monthly lease fee of $9.50, with no installation fee and no minimum contract period. That's a remarkable deal, unprecedented in the satellite business, because you can try Voom for a month or two and then cancel without penalty.

Voom has also filled most of the holes in its roster of non-HD cable channels, adding all the ones mentioned and others. In scanning through the current list, I found only three channels missing that have a significant audience: Lifetime, the Sci-Fi Channel and USA.

All of which makes it reasonable to order Voom and then enjoy what makes it stand apart: lots and lots of HD.

Voom offers 15 cable channels in HD, including Bravo, Discovery and ESPN in the basic package. Premium channels in HD include two each of Cinemax, HBO, Showtime and Starz, as well as one each of Encore, Playboy and the Movie Channel.

Programming fees range from $39.90 to $79.90 a month.

Voom goes further with its own exclusive lineup of 21 channels in HD, including 10 channels of movies, along with channels devoted to extreme sports, tours of art galleries and concert performances.

Local broadcasts, received through the roof antenna that comes with Voom, are smoothly integrated with the satellite feeds, and a single on-screen program guide covers both sets of channels.

It's also worth noting that Voom's parent company -- Cablevision Systems, which operates several cable channels and owns the New York Knicks and New York Rangers -- has deep enough pockets to stay in the game.

I spent several days watching Voom on a temporary installation supplied by the company at my home.

The visual and sound quality were outstanding. Watching ``The Sopranos'' in HD takes the best show on television to another level, making you feel even more a part of Tony and Carmela's angry world.

The Voom channels are mostly eye candy. How many times, after all, do you want to watch Paris fashion shows on the Ultra channel? And the movie channels offer only older films from the 1960s through 1990s, although they look very good in HD.

Still, I'm tempted to switch to Voom -- especially when they come out with a receiver that includes a built-in HD digital video recorder, which they're promising to do before the end of the year.

As long as Voom continues the no-obligations lease, I could always change my mind. And I'm betting Voom with stay out front in offering more HD than anyone else.
 
FunkyBoss

FunkyBoss

Pub Member / Supporter
Mar 23, 2004
753
1
Chicagoland, IL
This is a very nice review. I feel he pretty much so echos the feelings by most of us Voomers here.
 
V

Videofx

SatelliteGuys Pro
Mar 10, 2004
242
0
Now give us SciFi & USA like the guy said :)

Bill
 

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