"There's the equivalent of an arms race to get HD programming out there," says Phil Swann, president and publisher of TVPredictions.com. "They are basically sitting there like two gunslingers, staring each other down and saying, 'I can outdo you.' "
The arrival of mainstream outlets such as History and Weather Channel, he says, also "is crucial to making (HDTV) a mainstream technology. The channels people watch most often need to be in HD so most people wouldn't hesitate to buy."
DirecTV, which has 16.3 million subscribers, has ramped up offerings with a goal of 100 by the end of the year. Additions include A&E, Bravo, Food Network, HGTV, National Geographic, Nickelodeon and USA. Satellite competitor Dish Network, which has 13.6 million subscribers, offers many of the channels that DirecTV does plus exclusive programming such as Artland: USA on the 15 channels that make up its Voom HD network.
"DirecTV has obviously raised the stakes, but you're going to see the cable guys respond the best they can under the technological limitations," Swann says.
In general, major cable systems — and newer fiber-optic networks such as Verizon's FIOS and AT&T's U-Verse — have added channels at a slower pace; for now, their offerings average about two dozen channels.
While satellite networks have launched additional satellites to beam down more channels to subscribers, cable systems are depending on on-demand programming.
Cox cable systems typically have local networks in HD, along with a total of 20 popular channels such as Discovery, Mojo, Starz, Showtime, HBO, ESPN, History Channel and Universal.
By year's end, many systems could have up to 50 channels, including newer ones such as CNN.
In addition to offering the HD channels for A&E, CNN, Food, HGTV, History and National Geographic in many markets, Comcast offers about 200 HD on-demand program selections including Sunrise Earth.
"Linear channels are not the future of television," Comcast's Harrar says. With on-demand, "you look through a menu, pick what you want and hit play. You can pause and rewind and come back later."
Stories and pictures
The drive for more programming led to the creation of the Smithsonian Channel. Cable and satellite operators, after being pitched the channel as an on-demand network, asked, "Couldn't you be a full-blown 24-hour channel?" says David Royle, former executive producer of National Geographic Explorer and now the Smithsonian Channel's head of programming and production. "That was all tied into the explosion of HD."
An added benefit to networks such as the Smithsonian Channel is that high-def production adds minimally to the price of non-fiction programming, which already is much less expensive than traditional Hollywood scripted productions, says Stuart Zakim of Showtime Networks, which helped create the channel with the Smithsonian Institution.
Providers and consumers alike have "a growing, insatiable appetite" for HD programming, Royle says. As the channel began producing high-definition material, he saw "lots of people buying expensive plasma screens and realizing there's very little content. It's a bit like splurging on a Ferrari and then finding out that there is no petrol. It was an extraordinary situation."