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Audio and Home Theater News
  Oct 23    

ExpressVu launches PPV, HDTV services

      At a press conference at its Toronto head office on October 22, Bell ExpressVu ceremoniously threw the switch on what it called the first commercial HDTV broadcast ever made in Canada. Officially, the purpose of the press conference was to announce Bell ExpressVu's pay-per-view service, called "VU!". But early in the proceedings, company president Michael Neuman made it clear he wanted to talk about high-def.

     He compared the slow rollout of high-definition digital TV in Canada to the early days of broadcast television, when people would huddle around store windows to watch moving images in a box. But because there was so little programming, people were reluctant to purchase the hardware. "We've decided to break that chicken-and-egg syndrome," Neuman said.

     The first ExpressVu HD broadcast was a picture-postcard scenery program supplied by Sony. The company did not announce what might be included in future programming, but said it could include HD programming, such as ABC's Monday Night Football, picked up from U.S. digital stations.

     Bell ExpressVu will broadcast one high-def program per month from the Nimiq high-powered satellite. If "people embrace HDTV," Bell ExpressVu might increase the amount of HD programming it offers, Neuman said.

     In early 2000, the company will roll out satellite receivers with special high-def adapters to consumers. An integrated high-def satellite receiver will follow later in the year "as consumer demand develops." While the HD service will be part of the VU! PPV offering, Bell ExpressVu will not charge for the first 12 HD programs.

     Initially, high-def programming will be intended for demonstration at a limited number of Bell ExpressVu dealers, which will be rotated month to month. The November broadcast (exact date TBA, but probably the third or fourth Saturday) will be shown at Kromer Radio in Toronto and La Boutique in Montreal.

     Bell ExpressVu's PPV service, consisting of 50 different services on 30 channels, will be launched on October 28. VU! will offer more flexible purchase arrangements than cable-company PPV services, Neuman said. Instead of just pay-per-program plans, VU! will offer pay-per-day, pay-per-month, pay-per-year or, in with NHL Centre Ice, pay-per-season. Centre Ice will carry 800 games from the 1999-2000 season. The Racing Network, which includes live race coverage and betting-odds information, will sell for $24.99 per month.

     PPV movies will be offered on a pay-per-day basis, so that viewers can pause a movie, and come back to it at a later time. Most will be shown in what Bell ExpressVu calls "Super Definition TV," which is in fact, standard-definition 480i digital TV. "Super Definition" offers the best picture quality available on a regular NTSC set, noted Terry Snazel, vice-president technology for ExpressVu. Not only does the company use a high bit rate for "Super Definition," this material shown is never squeezed into composite form. Chrominance and luminance stay separated throughout. So these pictures won't be affected by NTSC artifacts like dot crawl, as long as the receiver is connected to the TV via an S-connection.

     Bell ExpressVu also announced a 24-per-hour PPV pornography service, called Venus. Venus will be a "cutting-edge" service, said Neumann. "There's more of it, and all the time," he said. Pornography channels on cable don't start operating until 11:00 p.m., Neuman noted. "Cable companies won't let you have this when you want it."

     In an interview following the Bell ExpressVu press conference, Bruce Barr, senior vice-president of Star Choice Residential Services, took issue with ExpressVu's claims to be the first to broadcast Canadian service to broadcast in high-definition. "We did it last April," he said. As Bell ExpressVu's "commercial" qualifier, Barr noted the type of programming and limited reach of this event.

     He said Star Choice's high-definition offering would be far stronger than Bell ExpressVu's. Star Choice will launch a full-time, 7/24 HD channel of HD programming starting on October 26. In prime-time, programming will be a "best-of" selection of the HD programming from U.S. broadcast networks. Barr said this would likely include Monday Night Football and the Super Bowl. In daytime, Star Choice will probably broadcast a high-def program loop on its HD channel.

     The HD service will be part of Star Choice's basic tier. Star Choice will receive its first shipment of HD decoders in mid-November. These will not be cheap. Last summer, Barr said the decoders would probably sell for $400 to $500. Now, on the eve of the company's HD launch, he says the first decoders will retail for $1,499. That's a function of limited production quantities, Barr said.

     Star Choice will broadcast all high-def programming in 1080i (material that originates in 720p will be converted to 1080i). Bell ExpressVu, by contrast, will broadcast material in its native format. The latter approach is obviously preferable. Not only does it respect the technical and artistic decisions made by program originators, it avoids conversion artifacts that might compromise picture quality. That said, virtually all current consumer high-definition televisions (Panasonic's PT-56WXF95 is one exception) display in 1080i, and convert 720p material to 1080i. So in most cases, Star Choice is doing what the set itself would do anyway.

Gordon Brockhouse

 

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