The sea of cable channels going digital is quite vast now with some that will hypnotize you with how beautiful their images are on an HDTV…and then others that exist merely to disgust you seeing the skin flaws of news anchors 24/7. If you’ve managed to get that HDTV (hopefully with a 1080p resolution so you’ll be set up for the next 20 years) and had enough dough left over to pay the rental fee for an HD box from your cable company (or deal with DirectTV’s HD satellite service), you’re ready to explore some interesting channels in high-definition. But wait, I hear your frustration that you’ve heard about a particular high-definition channel you want, though your cable system doesn’t carry it yet. Or maybe it’s a cable channel you love that you want to go digital, yet they may not for a while due to various reasons listed at the end of this article.
Here’s a short, opinionated list (in no particular order) of what I think are some of the best high-definition channels going now that you should check out and should be around for years. If you’re one willing to put up with blackouts from sun spots and snow getting into a satellite dish, you can probably get all these on DirectTV’s HD package:
—Discovery HD is, of course, the digital branch of The Discovery Channel. All you have to do is catch a rerun of the phenomenal multi-part nature documentary “Planet Earth” on Discovery HD and you’re in high-definition manna. There really isn’t anything better than showing the natural world around us in high-definition and it gives credence for digital images even existing. Fortunately, most programming on Discovery takes you around the world so you can see details of things you never thought possible before. There are some high-definition talking heads here as you’d get on History HD or TLC HD, though not as many or as long.
One drawback to Discovery HD: Too many commercials (as in every five minutes)…all in HD glory, much to the bliss of Madison Avenue and food companies. In that regard, it’s probably best to buy or rent the Blu-Ray version of “Planet Earth.”
—History HD as mentioned above may not sound immediately conducive to working well in high-definition. It surprisingly does, however, and the documentaries on how something mundane as the history of how cookies are made are quite fascinating in seeing clearer images of factories at work making all the things we take for granted. As I alluded to earlier, you’ll see a lot more talking heads…with a chance to see that every person on planet earth (and in history) had skin that sometimes looks like the surface of the moon.
The same drawback as Discovery HD: Too many damn commercials in a short amount of time. And a plus: The only channel around now that gets you up to date on the latest in UFO phenomena with numerous excellent (to admittedly dreadful) TV specials. Seeing them all in HD makes them worth your time.
—MGM HD unfortunately hasn’t been getting much attention (it’s on few cable systems as of now) despite being the only digital channel as of this writing that shows classic movies around the clock. It’s self-explanatory which movies they show and from what studio, and might be an early indicator of where TCM will go down the line. The question is: Because of the pillar box effect that creates left and right black mattes on a 16×9 screen for movies made before the early 1950’s, you have to wonder how successful their older movies will fare with younger generations who demand to see images fill the entire screen width of their HDTV’s now. Regardless, MGM HD doesn’t show a lot of movies from the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s or even 50’s like TCM does. After all, MGM’s movie catalog is quite vast (their press release for the channel last fall said 4,100 movies) and they have 55 years worth of widescreen movies (and, wow, in color!).
The only drawback here is that MGM HD has touted showing more recent movies from their vaults such as “Robocop” and “The Usual Suspects.” I hope they’ll focus at least somewhat on older titles so classic film can survive in the HDTV format. That is, until TCM ever manages to go digital.
—BBC HD is the digital offshoot of BBC America, which isn’t probably valued or watched enough by Americans like it should. Catching some of the newer shows imported from across the pond (the recent “Robin Hood” is dark, but gives a good workout of showcasing darker colors on your digital TV) is worth your time far and above a lot of the shows on American network TV. Even the older British sitcoms seen there look outstanding in digital, despite nudity and language being edited that was utilized on the original BBC runs already 30 years ago.
The same drawback as in some of the earlier-mentioned channels: Too many commercials. What could possibly be done about that? Nothing, probably–mainly because they need to make more money than others channels do. BBC HD doesn’t get the ratings that something like HBO HD does where execs there reportedly bathe in cash.
—ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox in HD are obviously selected by default–but you really can’t do without the main networks in your life when watching digital. Based on my personal opinion, NBC looks the best in high-definition at the moment (particularly “Saturday Night Live” where you can see live videotape), though it’ll depend on what you’re watching at any given time. You’ll be glad to be able to finally see all their shows in a full widescreen without having to watch them in letterbox as you have to now on an analog TV.
Seeing “American Idol” in digital on Fox HD is usually superb…if maybe sometimes disturbing when showing the judging triumvirate.
—CNN HD and/or Fox News HD. Yes, look at these as your Yin and Yang of news in high-definition, but you can’t live without both, no matter what your political moniker is. These probably might scare you at times when having to see news commentators such as Lou Dobbs or Neil Cavuto in startling 1080p detail. But it presumably could be a lot worse and you’re a real fly buzzing by and noticing previously unseen pock marks on news anchors.
Most cable systems will have CNN HD–though Fox News HD has just started at the time of this writing, so you won’t be seeing it anywhere any time soon unless you live in Texas (somehow ironic) or New York where Time Warner agreed to place it. Fox News may accuse the liberal media (or perhaps liberal-minded DirectTV) for not making their high-definition network diffuse in a matter of a couple of weeks.
—HD Theater (through Discovery) is pure high-definition bliss from the folks at Discovery Channel who use this channel to broadcast their best and most scenic documentaries. This is where you’re more apt to see more frequent reruns of “Planet Earth” along with specials that are exclusive to this network. Don’t miss those exclusive shows with the “HD” title attached such as “Destination HD”, “HD Getaways” and “HD Traveler.” They give you the next best thing to traveling outside of virtual reality. And I think we’ll be seeing that technology before long if we manage to keep boarding ourselves up in our homes and expecting more from our entertainment centers.
The channels that aren’t HD yet and should be soon before getting lost in the dust…
I’ve written here before about how concerned I am for the high-definition futures of TV Land and Turner Classic Movies. The channels that focus on retro stuff may suffer the most in high-definition because of screen shape. Even so, TV Land and TCM are still popular now in standard definition and will likely go digital before 2010. Considering they’re the only channels left in the cable universe now that caters to retro material, their demise in digital land would put all TV and movie history out to pasture, which would make TV irrelevant in my view.
Some of those fledgling alternative networks such as ION and The CW should also probably attempt to get over to digital soon. They don’t get a lot of viewers because they’re on the UHF dial for over-the-air viewers, but they have some good things on there once in a while along with reruns of old shows and specials that you can’t find anywhere else.
By the way, buckle down in 2009 for the Oprah Winfrey Network that’ll be the latest new digital channel on the dial. I see some kind of Freudian analysis in the
fact that Oprah’s network is the acronym of OWN–but we’ll assume it won’t ever own or usurp all of the above excellent HD channels…