It seems as if the powers that be don't want us to watch HDTV. You could have bought one of the first HDTVs – if your name is Buffet, Forbes or Gates. Soon after, HDTV prices started to dip below $3,000, but there was barely anything to watch.
Now there are HDTV sets priced less than $1,000 and the networks are at least transmitting most of their prime time shows in HD. Except that there's hardly anyone broadcasting what little HD material there is.
The cable industry is bragging that, on average, your local cable monopoly carries 10-12 HDTV channels. Whoopee. DirecTV and DISH at least transmit all the local HD terrestrial channels, but less than ten other HD channels, including pay-per-view and porn. Better, but still wholly inadequate.
But now there's VOOM, the new HD satellite service from CableVision. Quite simply, if you have a HDTV and you don't have VOOM, it's as if you spent $3,000 on a range and do nothing on it but warm up canned soup.
At press time, VOOM was serving up 37 HD channels (not including multiplexed local channels), more than three times the number delivered by either DirecTV or DISH or your local cable monopoly. And VOOM's HD lineup is continually growing: in May, VOOM added ESPN HD and TNT HD and, on June 15, it added Equator, an exclusive travel channel.
VOOM actually offers several different types of HD. There are 12 exclusive HD movie channels including the Western-themed Gunslingers; foreign film-centric World Cinema; the gay-oriented Divine; Epics specializes in made-for-TV fare; and Monsters HD, which shows a lot of really bad old horror movies. At press time, VOOM programmers were creating other themed HD movie channels for kids movies, crime films, action movies, and chick-flicks. These channels show either the same film over and over all day long or alternate between two films daily.
Then there are ten specialty channels including: Equator; the self-explanatory News HD and WorldSport HD; the all-cartoon Animania HD, which shows both classics such as Felix the Cat and Roger Ramjet (really!) mixed with more modern Japanimation; museum and art on Gallery HD; HD concerts and music videos on Rave HD; the extreme sport-themed Rush HD; style and fashion on Ultra TV; the latest from Sotheby's, et al, on Auction HD; and MOOV, a showcase for the latest in video abstract expressionism.
You also get a number of basic and premium HD channels including Bravo HD and The Discovery Home Theater HD, as well as both east and west coast HD feeds for HBO, Showtime, Cinemax and Starz! Six Feet Under fans on the west coast can catch the further adventures of the Fishers and Diazes three hours before the local broadcast, and east coasters can stay out a little later and catch the latest funeral on the rebound later Sunday evening.
And, thanks to the terrestrial HD antenna, you get all your local multiplexed channels. For instance, FOX, ABC and PBS each offer two separate HD channels, each with different programming; one New Jersey public TV station offers five HD streams. With all the multiplexing, New York City viewers can watch 27 local HD channels. That's a total of 64 HD channels to choose from.
Plus, you also get more than 80 standard definition channels – the usual cable suspects such as A&E, Nickelodeon, CNN, Oxygen, the History Channel, et al, as well as 18 digital Music Choice channels, familiar to any digital cable or satellite subscriber.
But VOOM is more than its sheer volume of HD programming. It's a simple-to-operate service with a brilliant picture via either component video or DVI connections. At $79.90 a month for the entire package of HD, SD and music channels, VOOM is far less expensive than a similar cable HD/SD package and is comparable to DirecTV and DISH.
At first glance, the hardware package is expensive, but CableVision is making it as easy as possible for you to get your VOOM HD. The round 18-inch dish, the terrestrial antenna to receive local HD broadcasts and the sleek silver receiver set-top box costs $499. VOOM was running a brainless special – nothing down and $9.50 a month plus programming. This promotion was good until July 6; it may still be available, but with a $199 charge.
VOOM has indicated that there is a HD DVR box á la the DISH DVR921 due later this year, but no other details were available at press time.
VOOM has a growing number of retailers, including Sears and Brandsmart. Professional installation is recommended, especially since there are two antennas to mount. If you're going to mount the gear yourself, the satellite dish gets pointed toward the southwest rather than southeast required for DirecTV and DISH.
There are two tiers of programming. The á la carte basic VOOM is $39.90 a month, which includes all the VOOM exclusive HD channels, all the non-premium SD channels and the 18 digital Music Choice channels. Additional premium channels are grouped into nine-channel PlusPacks at $14.90 each, such as the HBO PlusPack or the Starz! PlusPack, all of which include a couple of the premium channels in HD. The lone exception is the all-HD Marquee PlusPack, which includes Bravo HD, Discovery HD, ESPN HD, TNT HD and perhaps, by the time you head this, TBS HD. Va Va Voom is everything but the Playboy pay-per-view for $79.90 a month.
VOOM is always adding more channels, which increases its overall value. But not all the changes are pluses. According to the VOOM website (www.voom.com), "The Starz! and Showtime PlusPacks are delivered on satellite capacity that is only temporarily available...[and VOOM] may be required to cease transmitting over this capacity at any time." Caveat emptor.
Once installed, VOOM is a breeze to use. The remote is similar to many cable remotes with large, well-spaced and easy to read buttons that can be backlit.
Pressing the large, centered "VOOM" key brings up an easy to read and navigate electronic program guide on the bottom half of the screen. VOOM's programming is divvied into nine categories: All Channels, HD Channels, Favorites (which you designate), Movies, News, Sports, Pay Per View (only Playboy at the moment), Family and Kids, and Music (the Music Choice digital music channels familiar to digital cable subscribers).
A window on the upper right of the guide screen displays the program you're currently watching in full 16:9 HD; on the upper left is the channel and program description.
The box is nicely designed but has no display. A green LED indicates the service is active, red to indicate no service. A series of vertical orange lights flash to indicate the box is booting up.
The VOOM picture itself is outstanding. With our test Panasonic 42-inch plasma and a component video connection, it was hard to distinguish between VOOM and TimeWarner Cable's New York HDTV picture. However, with settings optimized for TimeWarner, VOOM looked over-saturated. Conversely, optimizing for VOOM left the Time Warner picture looking bleached. VOOM connected via DVI was a hair more impressive than a fully-optimized TimeWarner via component video, but not by much. Overall, the VOOM picture is top-notch.
Picture quality fluctuates among VOOM's varying HD offerings, however. The most impressive looking are the exclusive channels, which are all shot and shown in 1080i. The exclusive movies are, not surprisingly, a mixed lot. Some, such as A Clockwork Orange and the original Russian version of Solaris, look far better than their disc versions. Other films such as the 1975 Gene Hackman starrer, Night Moves, are grainy in comparison. However, this is likely more the fault of the condition of the original masters than any degradation caused by VOOM's HD conversion or broadcast. And even a grainy film looks better in 16:9 HD than in 4:3 SD.
Far more worrisome for film buffs is VOOM's choice of aspect ratio. Films shot in wider aspect ratios such as 2.35:1 are shown letterboxed within the 16:9 frame, but these are exceptions. VOOM wants to completely fill its customers' 16:9 screens. So many older films, such as Seven Days in May, were not shot in perfect 16:9. To fill the screen, VOOM has cropped these less-than-widescreen films a bit off top and bottom to eliminate letterboxing.
In most cases, you probably won't notice the cropping. But a bigger decision faces VOOM where pre-1953 films to be shown on the Classics HD channel are concerned. VOOM has said it plans to either crop and stretch these nearly square 1.33:1 films to fill the screen, or maintain the original aspect ratio, depending on the film. Here's hoping they arrive at a more artistically respectful solution.
Transmission stability is a bit of an issue. While rain showers resulted in some minor picture hiccups, a couple of major thunder storms knocked the signal out completely. However, there was no "acquiring signal" message. Instead, we got extreme digitalization of the picture before the screen finally froze or faded to black – and stayed there. Rebooting the set-top box (either by holding the power button or actually unplugging the box from the AC) usually fixed things, however. At most, we missed about a half hour on one dark and stormy night.
Local sports fans also will be disappointed. While VOOM delivers the full slate of ESPN channels, FOX World Sport and its own exclusive WorldSport HD channel, at press time there were no local or regional sports offerings. VOOM has indicated that they are negotiating with a half dozen regional FOX Sports Nets owned by VOOM's CableVision parent, but at press time they were still MIA.
VOOM is migrating to MPEG-4 and Windows Media 9 technology (rather than MPEG-2) over the next two years – encoders are already built into current set-top boxes, so the change will be largely invisible to current users. This could result in a higher quality, more secure digital signal. But it certainly will mean more room on the lone VOOM satellite for a lot more HD channels, bringing even more value to the only HD game in town.