Attention couch potatoes: If you thought you had a lot of...

August 10, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Attention couch potatoes: If you thought you had a lot of cable channels now, just wait.

Comcast Cablevision last month quietly began offering some Baltimore County subscribers the opportunity to get as many as 102 new cable channels - all part of a limited trial of its new digital cable service.

Digital cable is creating a buzz in an industry that has seen its customers slowly being lured away by digital satellite broadcasting services such as DirecTV and Primestar, which have been able to promise customers more channel offerings.

And the technology could also redefine the way Americans use their television sets. In addition to more channels, the digital cable potentially allows cable companies to offer a slew of information and entertainment services, from e-mail to video-on-demand.

"It really does change what television is all about," said Gary Arlen of Arlen Communications Inc., a telecommunications research firm in Bethesda.

Digital cable should not be confused with high-definition television, or HDTV, the much-publicized digital televisions that are expected to cost several thousand dollars. Digital cable does not require subscribers to buy a new television set but requires that they replace their analog set-top cable box with an advanced digital one.

Comcast's new digital cable service - which the company plans to officially roll out to its subscribers in Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties this fall - will cost an extra $10 a month, a price that includes the new set-top box, and initially has the following features:

* more premium and pay-per-view channels; 40 commercial-free music channels with CD-quality sound; an on-screen interactive program guide that can quickly sort program listings by time, channel, subject or title using the remote control. It can also be used to order pay-per-view movies, to remind viewers when their favorite show is about to start and to block youngsters from watching questionable programs.

Comcast, the fourth largest cable operator in the country, said Baltimore is one of its first markets to get the new digital service. Tele-Communications Inc., Baltimore City's cable provider, began offering a similar service to its subscribers in December. Jones Intercable Inc., which serves parts of Anne Arundel County, says it has no plans to offer digital cable services.

Cable industry analysts say as many as 1 million advanced digital set-top boxes could be delivered to U.S. homes this year by cable companies.

Most of the new new premium and pay-per-view channels available with digital cable will not carry new content. They will make the same premium or pay-per-view content available at more frequent intervals. The movie "Air Force One" might start every 30 minutes instead of once or twice a day.

"It's getting much closer to the convenience and flexibility of renting a video without the inconvenience of having to take it back," said Comcast spokesman David Nevins. "It's for true couch potatoes."

But some cable networks are starting to cobble together original programming to fill the channel capacity created by digital cable. At the cable industry's annual gathering in May in Atlanta, a few networks offered a peak at some of the new, ultra-specialized channels under development.

Discovery Network, for example, is planning "Discovery Wings," a 24-hour channel about aviation, one of seven new channels in the works. MTV Networks is planning 10 new channels that range from an educational children's channel to a soul music channel. HBO intends to launch a six-channel package, including one for people in their 20s called HBO Zone.

It's the technology underlying digital cable that makes all these new channels possible. A digital signal - nothing more than a stream of ones and zeros - takes up less space than an analog one, which is why a digital compact disk holds more information than an analog record album. Comcast, for example, uses a technology to scrunch six digital channels into the space formerly occupied by one analog channel.

By moving to a digital network, Comcast be able to expand its channel offerings and offer new digital services. One day, some in the cable industry speculate, cable companies such as Comcast may take the place of the video rental store, Internet service provider and telephone company.

The digital set-top box Comcast is using for its digital cable service - a device made by Scientific-Atlanta Inc. called Explorer 2000 - containes enough computing horsepower to provide just about any information or entertainment that can travel over a wire, the company says.

Early on, cable companies will probably offer their digital customers services such as e-mail and high-speed Internet access through their televisions, just as now Comcast and other cable companies offer high-speed Internet access to subscribers with a PC.

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